For a quick take on the carnage in the thrift industry, look no further than the shifting ranks of the largest players.

Of the 25 biggest thrift organizations five years ago, 10 now are out of business or under government control, according to an American Banker survey.

"It's absolutely shocking," said Robert Chaut, a managing director in the financial institutions group of Chase Manhattan Bank. He pointed out that the 10 departed companies once controlled nearly 40% of the assets of the top 25.

The defunct companies include Financial Corporation of America, Crossland Savings, and Goldome. Though the names and the stories behind their demise are familiar, the cumulative damage is far more extensive than many observers realized. (For complete data, see tables on page 14.)

The thrift industry's losses, however, were a boon to some banks and investors. Expansion-minded commercial banks have been moving aggressively to pick up thrift assets and deposits.

Last year, for example, the Buffalo-based Goldome was divided between Keycorp and First Empire State Corp. In the West, both BankAmerica and Wells FArgo picked up big pieces of failed thrifts.

Entrepreneurial investor groups also have moved into the thrift industry with a vengeance. Keystone Holdings, a unit of the Robert M. Bass Group, now ranks as the nation's fourth-largest thrift company after picking up assets of Financial Corporation of America.

Golden West's Growth

A handful of surviving thrifts also have benefited from the turmoil of the past five years. Golden West Financial Corp., in Oakland, Calif., increased its assets by a spectacular 96%, moving to No. 3 at the end of 1991 from NO. 11 at the end of 1986.

The surviving giants, in fact, are still on the prowl - and some are eyeing each other as possible merger partners.

H.F. Ahmanson & Co., the nations' largest thrift company, is said to be exploring a purchase of struggling CalFed Inc., which is ranked No. 7.

"I've heard fairly reliably that it's something Ahmanson has been looking at for some time," said Allan Bortel, president of Daking Securities, San Francisco.

He and other observers cautioned, however, that Ahmanson is unlikely to do such a deal without government assistance.

The possible combination between the California thrift giants was reported earlier this week by the National Mortgage News. Representatives of Ahmanson and CalFed declined to comment.

Leaner Strategies

Even as Ahmanson and its ilk are growing, many other prominent thrifts have been shrinking dramatically as part of plans to boost capital and refocus strategies.

Meritor Savings Bank, Philadelphia, reduced its assets by 67% since 1986, to about $ 6 billion at the end of 1991. That dropped it to No. 24 in the rankings from No. 5 at the end of 1986.

As Mr. Chaut of Chase pointed out, however, it deserves congratulations. "They're still alive."

That's no small feat. As a result of failures and mergers, the number of thrifts in the country fell 29% over the past five years, to 2,628.

Commercial Bank Winners

Much of the spoils went to commercial banks, which acquired $171 billion of thrift deposits in the past two and a half years, according to SNL Securities, Charlottesville, Va.

In many cases, banks folded thrift deposits and assets into their own operations, causing the thrifts themselves to disappear.

Robert Wilmers, the chairman of Buffalo-based First Empire State, said in his company's annual report that such maneuvers demonstrate "the lessened significance of the distinction between the two kinds of institution." Since 1990, First Empire has acquired parts of three failed thrifts, including some of the Goldome offices.

Nevertheless, two banking companies appear among the top 25 thrift owners because they have maintained their acquisitions as separate entities with thrift charters, Citicorp, the only bank on the list five years ago, has been joined by Republic New York Corp.

Republic, currently No. 21, gives strong signs of a hunger for more thrift holdings. Earlier this year, it bid for the deposits of Brooklyn-based Crossland before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. opted to run Crossland itself.

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