H.F. Ahmanson & Co. has resumed buying back its own shares from investors, a move which bolsters the value of its hostile bid for Great Western Financial Corp.
Ahmanson suspended its repurchase program, which had been in effect since October 1995, shortly before making its unsolicited offer for Great Western on Feb. 18. Through March 31, the company reported buying back 19.2 million shares, or an average of 3.2 million per quarter.
The Irwindale, Calif., thrift company revived its buyback program in late March, said spokeswoman Mary Trigg. But the thrift halted buybacks for five days during early April surrounding its announcement of first-quarter earnings.
Ms. Trigg said Thursday that the thrift is now repurchasing shares at levels consistent with those before its bid for Great Western.
It is unclear just how much stock Ahmanson is really buying back right now, but sources close to Washington Mutual Inc., which has agreed to buy Great Western, along with some analysts, believe it has been enough to affect Ahmanson's stock price.
"Ahmanson is aggressively buying back stock," according to Smith Barney thrift analyst Thomas O'Donnell, who estimated the repurchase activity at up to 20% of its daily trading volume. Sources close to Washington Mutual Inc. say the level could be as high as 25%
But a source close to Ahmanson insisted the thrift was buying "less than half" the number of shares estimated by Smith Barney. "We challenge Washington Mutual to file those numbers with the SEC," the source said. "We know what the real number is."
Tony Boldyreu of Wagner Stott Mercator, a securities firm that acts as a specialist for Ahmanson shares on the New York Stock Exchange, said he had seen "no unusual activity" in Ahmanson trading lately.
About 8.95 million Ahmanson shares changes hands in April, and daily volume was below average. But if Ahmanson bought back only 10% of the daily volume, over three months it would repurchase 2.7 million shares. That is consistent with pre-Great Western levels.
Buybacks are a weapon Washington Mutual lacks in the battle for Great Western, because of the way it is accounting for its proposed merger.
At the very least, the buybacks appear to have supported Ahmanson's price while Washington Mutual's shares were falling.
Ahmanson's share price was flat between April 1 and April 28, while Washington Mutual's stock price dropped 6%.
While this was good news for Ahmanson in the short-term, analysts caution that it raises questions about the degree of shareholder support for their hostile bid.
"If a lot of the strength of Ahmanson's stock is attributable to Ahmanson's own purchases, then you have to question how widespread the shareholder support is," said Joseph K. Morford 3d, analyst at Alex. Brown & Sons Inc.
Ahmanson has been clear that it believes its offer must be significantly better than Washington Mutual's to win over Great Western's shareholders, who will decide the issue. Ahmanson chief executive Charles Rinehart has said his thrift's offer must be 5% higher to win.
Ahmanson shares fell 25 cents, to $37.875. That means its offer is 4.7% higher than Washington Mutual's, whose stock closed yesterday at $48.25, down $1.125.