Stock prices of California thrifts jumped higher Thursday in response to a published report that Cal Fed Bancorp is in merger talks with First Nationwide Bank.

Merger speculation about the state's thrifts, which last flared during the hostile bidding war for First Interstate Bancorp in the fall, returned in a big way Thursday after The Wall Street Journal reported Cal Fed was weighing a proposal of $22 to $24 a share.

The report, coming only three days after Washington Mutual Inc. announced an agreement to buy American Savings Bank, helped lift shares of H.F. Ahmanson & Co. $37.5 cents to $24.875. Golden West Financial rose $1.125, to $54.875; Great Western Financial $1, to $23; Glendale Federal 25 cents, to $17.75; and Coast Financial 37.5 cents, to $31.125.

Cal Fed shares, which had risen 10% on merger speculation in the last week and a half, gained another $1.25, to $21.375.

"Mentally, investors have put these stocks in play, as well they should," said Thomas O'Donnell, thrift analyst at Smith Barney. He argued that thrift mergers in California and acquisitions of thrifts by banks outside the state are "inevitable."

"If you want to be a bank with a Nationwide franchise, you have to be in California," he said, noting that the state's economy, which accounts for 13% of the national economy, is thought to be on the rebound at last.

Mr. O'Donnell said prices are likely to rise from the 1.5 times book value that Washington Mutual has agreed to pay for American to as much as twice book value as the wave of deals passes over the state. With only six large franchises available, prices could rise in a hurry as acquirers' options run out, he said.

The $22 to $24 that Cal Fed reportedly is considering equals 1.7 to 1.85 times the thrift's March 31 book value, Mr. O'Donnell said.

Emanuel J. Friedman, chief executive of Friedman, Billings, Ramsay & Co., an Arlington, Va., investment bank, said the reported acquisition plan makes sense for First Nationwide, because it could cut costs by eliminating overlapping branches and extend its influence into the southern part of the state.

Campbell Chaney of Rodman & Renshaw, San Francisco, said Cal Fed lent credibility to persistent rumors that it was in talks by delaying its quarterly earnings announcement until next week.

Both thrifts declined to comment.

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