Shares of Dime Bancorp have surged this month, fueled by speculation that rival Greenpoint Financial Corp. was close to an agreement to buy the $18.5 billion-asset New York thrift.

Spokesmen for both Dime and Greenpoint declined to comment, but Salvatore DiMartino, an analyst at Advest Inc., said, "The combination would be a dream franchise in New York."

Industry watchers said a potential Greenpoint-Dime deal would not be out of the question, even though Greenpoint is the smaller of the two institutions. Analysts said Dime stock, trading at $28.0625 late last week - up 22% from mid-November - could fetch a per-share price of $30 to $32, or more than three times book value.

Many analysts said, however, that a deal would be unlikely soon. "With savings and loans, you tend to get the rumor of the week," said Salomon Smith Barney analyst Thomas O'Donnell.

Still, both banks have been speaking to analysts in recent months about growth strategies. Greenpoint has said outright it wants to make an acquisition of a local institution with over $1 billion of assets. Such thrifts in the region include Dime, Astoria Financial Corp., and North Fork Bancorp, analysts said.

Industry watchers said Greenpoint will have to move swiftly. "They need to grow deposits," said Gerard Cassidy, an analyst at Tucker Anthony Inc. "Dime would enhance that significantly."

The need for cheap deposits to fund lending ventures is increasing in light of stiffer competition from local commercial banks, Mr. Cassidy and other analysts said.

Greenpoint has been moving to diversify its lending portfolio and has aggressively marketed a special mortgage loan program, dubbed "no-doc," for would-be homeowners who have difficulty qualifying for a regular mortgage.

Dime, with assets of $18.5 billion, deposits of $13.4 billion, and 90 branch offices, would be an attractive addition to Greenpoint, analysts said. The two banks have little branch overlap, even though they are among the biggest thrifts in the metropolitan area.

Greenpoint, with assets of $13.1 billion, deposits of $11 billion, and 76 branches, would virtually lock up market share in Long Island, Queens, and Brooklyn with an acquisition of Dime, analysts said.

Analysts said it was unlikely Dime's chairman, Lawrence Toal, would be willing to sell soon. Mr. Toal rose to the top position only in January, and Dime's board is said to be "pleased" with Mr. Toal's efforts to build revenue growth internally, according to analysts.

For now, only Dime and Greenpoint officials know for sure how likely a deal would be further in the future. "Do I think they've talked? Yes," said Mr. Cassidy on the speculation. "Are they serious discussions? That's the question."

In November 1996 Dime was the subject of a similar rumor. At the time, the rumored buyer was Republic New York Corp.

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