Seeking to return to an organizational structure it abandoned more than two years ago, California Federal Bank said it plans to form a holding company.

In a registration statement filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission last week, the Los Angeles-based thrift said it would become wholly owned by Cal Fed Bancorp, with each share of California Federal stock to be exchanged for one share of the new company.

Executives said the change, which requires approval by the Office of Thrift Supervision, would make it easier to expand into nontraditional business lines.

"In order to continue to compete effectively and increase the bank's value to our customers and shareholders, California Federal needs broader financial and operating flexibility," said Edward G. Harshfield, president and chief executive.

Executive vice president James F. Hurley noted that many of California Federal's biggest competitors are thrifts owned by California holding companies, including the nation's three biggest - Home Savings of America, Great Western Bank, and World Savings and Loan Assocation.

H.F. Ahmanson & Co., the parent of Home Savings, and Great Western Financial Corp. are hotly pursuing nontraditional business lines. Great Western has a consumer finance unit that analysts have praised as one of its most profitable operations. Ahmanson has begun entering markets such as automobile and home equity lending and is considering starting a consumer finance unit.

Mr. Hurley said California Federal, the eighth-largest U.S. thrift with $14.3 billion of assets, provides nonmortgage consumer loans and finance services by working with other "intermediaries." But he added that it "may have an interest" in selling these services itself.

As California Federal diversifies, it intends to stick with products that "fit our conservative profile," the executive added.

The thrift's former parent, Calfed Inc., entered such businesses as property and casualty insurance, multifamily housing, and commercial and industrial lending, which generated sizable losses.

An ensuing recapitalization and restructuring included the elimination of the holding company.

Mr. Hurley said the new holding company could facilitate, but is not directly tied to, conversion to a bank charter. California Federal and others have threatened to convert if thrifts are forced to pay higher deposit insurance premiums than banks.

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