Merger surfers in California think they've finally caught the perfect wave.

The deals announced between American Savings and Washington Mutual Inc. and between First Nationwide Inc. and Cal Fed Bancorp. have spurred hope that the long anticipated thrift merger wave is finally curling over the California market.

If the pattern of mergers in other states holds, the Golden State's remaining big thrifts could suddenly command lofty prices, said Thomas O'Donnell, the thrift analyst at Smith Barney.

That could create some opportunities, but analysts said bankers and investors will have to position themselves carefully if they want a satisfying ride on the wave, which could pass by in a hurry.

"Mergers tend to come in waves," said Mr. O'Donnell, and as with a wave, prices "start off low, they crest, and then they wane."

In Florida, for example, thrifts sold for an average of 97% of book value in the second quarter of 1992. Prices crested at more than two times book in the second quarter of 1994 before slipping to 145% by yearend, according to SNL Securities.

In California, a slow economy and a lack of midsize banks to attract outside buyers had kept merger activity to a minimum. But with the economy now on the mend, the two big purchases announced last month may have tipped the balance in favor of dealmaking in the thrift sector, Mr. O'Donnell and other analysts said.

To be sure, unique factors in California may make it tricky to ride the curl on this merger wave. Indeed, some remain skeptical that the two July deals were anything more than an anomaly.

John Mason, banking analyst at Interstate Johnson Lane, Atlanta, said the 9% to 10% return on equity of most thrifts is insufficient to attract bank suitors. Besides, "the S&Ls in California are pretty big animals," which limits to a handful the banks capable of buying them.

Mr. Mason said it might make sense for some big New York banks to look outside their own mature market to California, where economic growth appears to be on the rise again.

But he said at least two such contenders - J.P. Morgan & Co. and Bankers Trust New York Corp. - are out of the running because their investment banking focus precludes an interest in the savings and loan business.

The two big acquirers in the Southeast - First Union Corp. and NationsBank Corp. - are unlikely to buy so far from home, Mr. Mason said.

Mr. O'Donnell acknowledged that the opportunity to make a truly big killing on California mergers may already have come and gone. "The time to buy was six months ago when the economy was dire," he said.

Still, he argued, out-of-state banks would have to buy thrifts in California because there is no other way to enter the market.

"Prices are going to go up," Mr. O'Donnell said.

In the deals so far, American Savings commanded a price equal to 155% of book value. A week later Cal Fed went for 170%. The remaining big thrifts in the state are trading at lower levels than that.

Last week Coast Savings Financial, Los Angeles, was trading at 143% of book; Glendale Federal Bank, 130%; Great Western Financial Corp., 133%; and Golden West Financial Corp., 142%.

Beyond those big thrifts, the opportunities may be limited. "Scarcity value" is one reason Mr. O'Donnell believes the prices for big thrifts could rise quickly as dealmaking gains momentum.

Experience in the East suggests that the trick for investors after the obvious targets are sold will be to find thrifts and small banks with strong share in desirable markets, said Brian McShane, a corporate finance vice president and trader at Ryan Beck & Co., Philadelphia.

Mr. Mason said now that merger activity has settled down in the Southeast, the stocks of thrifts that were left out of the party have been languishing.

"There is a size threshold under which a large bank would not acquire no matter what," Mr. McShane agreed.

"The phenomenon we've seen in eastern markets is concentration, where two or three players are dominant in any market," he said. "You wind up where new market entrants are very hesitant to get in."

The consequence, he said, has been a rash of in-market deals, as the smaller players combine in hopes of making themselves more viable as targets.

In California, Downey Financial, Newport Beach; Bay View Capital Corp., San Mateo; and First Republic Bancorp, San Francisco, all command attractive shares of strong urbanized markets and are likely to attract bidders or partners, Mr. O'Donnell said.

"For takeovers in California as in Florida," Mr. O'Donnell said, "the key thing is going to be location, location, location."

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