You think Money Store sold for a lot of money? You ain't seen nothing yet, analysts say.

Beneficial Corp., a much bigger consumer finance company than Money Store, has been on the block for several weeks, and analysts expect both commercial banks and big consumer financiers to get into the bidding. Some believe Beneficial, which has an extensive branch network and a private- label credit card business, could fetch more than five times book value.

For comparison's sake, Money Store agreed to sell to First Union Corp. for $2.1 billion, or 3.3 times book-almost the same multiple as First Union paid for Virginia's Signet Banking Corp. last summer. "I'd say Beneficial will fetch a substantially higher premium than Money Store," said Reilly Tierney, an analyst at Fox Pitt-Kelton Inc.

Which banks would bid for a company that was thoroughly revamping its operations only a month before putting itself up for sale?

In a recent report, PaineWebber Inc. analyst Gary J. Gordon listed Norwest Corp., Banc One Corp., and KeyCorp as potential bidders.

Norwest, which never saw a big-bank merger price tag it liked, paid $343 million last year for Fidelity Acceptance Corp., the subprime auto lending unit of BankBoston Corp.

KeyCorp acquired an auto finance group two years ago and last year bought subprime mortgage lender Champion Mortgage Holdings Inc. for $200 million.

Banc One, Mr. Gordon noted, operates no consumer finance branches, but is a "midsize" private-label credit card issuer and paid big last year to acquire credit card specialist First USA Inc.

But Mr. Gordon said he believes the better angels of bankers' nature will probably prevail and these would-be bidders will let a big consumer financier snap up Beneficial.

He mentioned such companies as Household International Inc., Associates Corp., Travelers Group, or GE Capital Corp. Household and CIT Group were said to be among the bidders for Beneficial as of March 5.

Associates could bid much as $168 per share-5.3 times Beneficial's book value-without inflicting dilution on its own shareholders, if it sliced Beneficial's costs by 20%, Mr. Gordon said.

Household could go as high as $126, and GE Capital, $154.

Banks simply couldn't compete with those numbers for Beneficial.

Then again, they might not want to.

Whereas First Union is so huge it can probably absorb Money Store's earnings volatility without major bottom-line side effects, Norwest, Banc One, or KeyCorp would become vulnerable if they were to acquire Beneficial.

And that may be a blessing for these banking companies because Mr. Gordon, long one of the industry's most skeptical analysts, said he believes the entire subprime lending sector is in for some rough times.

"Severe and worsening competitive pressures are eroding profit margins," Mr. Gordon wrote. "Essentially every mortgage banker is now originating subprime loans, and many plan to put up big numbers."

These growth plans have led to a glut of money available to suspect borrowers.

Even if loan originations grew 35% in 1998-as many lenders predict they will-it would only further the refinancing boom that is eating into the profits of big lenders, Mr. Gordon said.

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