WASHINGTON - Great Western Financial Corp., the nation's second- largest thrift company, is planning to charter two national banks in an effort to escape the high costs of thrift deposit insurance.

The move, unveiled Wednesday, illustrates how far the thrift industry is prepared to go to avoid paying six times more than banks for deposit insurance. Such a disparity is expected by yearend.

If regulators approve the new charters, as is predicted, Great Western could open bank branches at its 400-plus thrift locations in California and Florida.

Customers would be enticed to shift their thrift deposits to the banks, which could pay higher interest rates because of the lower insurance costs.

"Through these national banks, Great Western will be able to offer its customers more federally insured products at competitive rates," said James F. Montgomery, chairman and chief executive of the $42 billion-asset company based outside Los Angeles in Chatsworth, Calif.

Filing applications at three banking agencies yesterday, Great Western pegged potential deposit insurance savings at $64 million a year.

Great Western's move is likely to spark other thrift holding companies to follow suit.

Golden West Financial Corp., parent of the $30 billion-asset World Savings and Loan Association, has the same idea in mind, according to industry sources. Officials at the Oakland-based thrift could not be reached.

"Great Western may be the first one to file an application, but I know as many as six major companies that are considering establishing national bank subsidiaries," said Patrick Forte, president of the Association of Financial Services Holding Companies.

"Savings institutions will not remain passive in the face of a significant disparity in deposit insurance premiums," added Paul A. Schosberg, president of America's Community Bankers. "Lambs may stand still to be sheared, but not to be slaughtered."

On Jan. 31, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. proposed cutting bank premiums by 83% while leaving thrift premiums at historical highs. By yearend, most banks will be paying 4 cents for each $100 of domestic deposits while the thrift rate will remain at 24 cents.

This coming gap in rates already had thrift executives scrambling. Great Western's move adds to the pressure to find a solution. If other thrift companies follow the lead, the Savings Association Insurance Fund's base would be eroded.

"If everybody did that, the SAIF fund would go up in smoke," said William A. Cooper, chairman of TCF Financial Corp., a $7.5 billion-asset thrift holding company in Minneapolis.

While TCF has no plans to charter a bank, Mr. Cooper said he understands Great Western's motivations.

"Perhaps by calling attention to the problem, it will help bring forth a solution," Mr. Cooper added.

Bruce Harting, a director at Salomon Brothers, called Great Western's move "a realistic, proactive response to the absurd deposit insurance structure.

"It's unfortunate the Congress and the regulators have to put a company up to this," he said.

That sentiment won support from Office of Thrift Supervision Acting Director Jonathan Fiechter Wednesday.

"It is very unfortunate that institutions . . . are forced to resort to actions of the type Great Western has proposed," Mr. Fiechter said. "A restructuring of the thrift industry driven by the premium differential is an unfortunate use of resources."

While other regulatory agency officials would not comment on the record, they said the applications are routine and are likely to be approved.

"I don't know on what grounds we could turn it down," said one high- ranking agency official. "There are public policy concerns, but there is nothing in the laws or regs that could stop it."

Great Western filed applications with the Comptroller of the Currency for the bank charters, at the Federal Reserve to become a bank holding company, and at the FDIC for insurance on the two banks.

Gil Schwartz, a partner at Schwartz & Ballen law firm here who is working for Great Western, predicted agency approval in about six months.

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