Bank and thrift job cuts this year are climbing into the tens of thousands, amounting to the biggest financial industry dislocation since the early 1990s.

Most of the layoffs can be attributed to the record merger and acquisition activity, with 372 bank and thrift deals announced so far this year.

But experts say the situation is not as bad as in the last down cycle, when banks in all regions faced severe real estate-related losses. The vast majority of financial institutions should not feel the effects of current problems from hedge fund exposure or junk bond trading, which are mainly confined to money-centers, said Ryan, Beck & Co. banking analyst Lawrence Cohn.

Capital markets groups at money-center banks are probably most vulnerable to the current macroeconomic trends, according to Thomas Theurkauf of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc.

The biggest layoffs result from the largest merger transactions, which require overhead reductions to maximize profitability and shareholder returns.

Job-loss projections have been made public from five of the top 10 financial institution mergers this year, and they total more than 20,000.

That is what makes mergers so scary, said John A. Challenger, executive vice president of the Chicago outplacement specialist Challenger, Gray & Christmas. More big numbers remain to be announced.

"Those people are working in limbo, wondering what their fates are going to be," he said. "Everyone knows it's coming, and it all adds up to that uncertainty you have when you know you could lose your job."

Travelers Group and Citicorp, which plan to close their record-setting merger Thursday, may cut as many as 8,000 jobs, or 5% of their combined work force. That comes on top of 7,500 that Citicorp chopped last year.

Citicorp spokesman John Morris said retrenchment has become a necessary evil. "Prudent management says that if your business outlook changes, your cost situation should match your business outlook," he said. "If you think that business is going to go down, you look at it to insure you don't have unnecessary people."

After its deal with NationsBank Corp., the new BankAmerica Corp. expects to cut 5,000 to 8,000 jobs. Wells Fargo & Co. after its Norwest Corp. transaction has targeted 2,130.

In the thrift sector, Washington Mutual Inc. said it will trim as many as 3,500 jobs in its takeover of H.F. Ahmanson & Co., and the joining of California Federal and Glendale Federal will cost 850 jobs, those companies said.

The new Bank One Corp.-the product of last week's combination of Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp. and First Chicago NBD Corp.-has yet to say how many people will be let go to meet an annual cost-cutting goal $930 million after 2001.

Given the stock markets' recent slide and economic crises around the globe, the job outlook for displaced bankers is rather dismal. Recruiters said that insurance and international banking may be two places to look.

"I see a lot of bankers going to insurance companies," said Lee Pomeroy of the executive search firm Egon Zehnder International. "I don't see a depression in insurance right now. Insurance still has an appetite for commercial bankers."

Andrea de Cholnoky, co-head of the global securities and wholesale banking practice at recruiter Spencer Stuart, said international banks "hover and look to recruit when prices are down."

People pushed out by the merger of BankAmerica and NationsBank have no trouble getting offers, said Mr. Pomeroy. But it remains to be seen how long these new jobs will last.

"They've gone from a career where they spent 15 years at one bank," he said. "But the odds are now that any job will only be left unrestructured for 18 to 24 months," until the hiring company is taken over.

Mr. Pomeroy said this "new flexibility" is an advantage for the American worker. "We have developed a comfort with personal change," he said. "In France and Germany, they are light years away from this.

"We've demonstrated that not only is this a process we can survive, but we can prosper from it."

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