For merger and acquisition deals involving thrift institutions, 1996 was a record year.

The major eye-opener was the $1.9 billion paid for Michigan- based Standard Federal Bank by Dutch banking giant ABN Amro. The price tag was equal to more than twice the thrift's book value and represented a plush 10% deposit premium - easily one-third higher than the average premium.

"The deal stretched the envelope for takeover pricing of S&Ls," said industry analyst Thomas O'Donnell of Smith Barney Inc. And thrift stocks benefited - rising, on average, 25% by yearend versus the S&P's 20% gain.

Congress also buoyed thrift acquisition prospects, and stock prices, by replenishing the thrift deposit insurance fund and saving thrifts $3 billion in potential taxes on their bad debt reserves.

Still, most observers don't foresee a wave of deals with banks buying thrifts any time soon. Most banks are still put off by the relatively stodgy culture and mortgage specialty of thrifts, they said.

Instead, a handful of big, forward-looking thrifts will be the most active acquirers of other thrifts, analysts said.

Among the buyers will be Washington Mutual Inc., Seattle, TCF Financial Corp., Minneapolis, and Charter One Financial Inc., Cleveland. Washington Mutual last year bought American Savings Bank, Irvine, Calif., for $1.4 billion, and both TCF and Charter One were serious bidders for Standard Federal.

All three have already used an aggressive acquisition strategy to expand their geographic reach, and their strong stock prices give them the currency to keep buying. In a recent report, Montgomery Securities analyst Caren E. Mayer dubbed this group "the emerging superregionals" among thrifts.

They stand apart from their peers, Ms. Mayer wrote, for their early efforts to diversify into nonmortgage businesses. "They recognized the flaws in the core thrift business a long time ago and came up with a strategy to be more profitable," she said.

"They're expanding their franchises. They're driving their costs out, (and) they're moving their ROA (return on assets) up."

Ultimately, these thrifts may be targeted by the nation's big banks, Ms. Mayer said. But for now, they're in the buyer's seat.

Indeed, in the nation's richest market for thrift deals - California - Washington Mutual has emerged as the biggest player.

The thrift doubled its assets last year with the purchase of $20 billion-asset American Savings. And Kerry K. Killinger, Washington Mutual's chairman, has served notice that another deal could come at any time.

Mr. Killinger's negotiations with Los Angeles-based Coast Savings Financial Inc. are said to be well advanced. At the same time, industry insiders said, the Seattle thrift is also talking to $42.9 billion-asset Great Western Financial Inc., Chatsworth, Calif.

According to sources familiar with his thinking, Mr. Killinger views California as the key to his strategy to make Washington Mutual the nation's premier thrift.

The Golden State's high-cost housing market makes it among the few places where mortgage investment by thrifts is a viable business. That is because the Federal National Mortgage Association and Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. can't compete for the state's rich supply of jumbo mortgages.

In fact, California is only the most recent new territory opened by Washington Mutual. It had already used acquisitions to expand from its Seattle home base into neighboring Oregon and Utah.

Like Washington Mutual, Charter One has a record of building both size and profitability through savvy acquisitions, first in its home state of Ohio and, since 1995, in Michigan. Charter One entered Michigan by buying FirstFed Michigan Corp., quickly doubling its assets.

It followed up by purchasing First Nationwide Bank's Michigan branches. And last year, it was among the final bidders for Standard Federal.

Michael A. Moran, an industry analyst at Roney & Co., Detroit, said he expects Charter One to continue making inroads in both Ohio and Michigan, as well as in Wisconsin, Indiana, and possibly the Chicago market. Its targets: the dozen or so thrifts in Michigan, Indiana, and Wisconsin with assets between $1 billion and $1.5 billion.

Charles John "Bud" Koch, chief executive of Charter One, whose grandfather founded the thrift's predecessor in a Czech neighborhood of Cleveland in 1934, views the Midwest "as his oyster to cultivate," Mr. Moran said.

Charter One will likely be butting heads in these markets with the other midwestern powerhouse, TCF Financial, Mr. Moran said.

Led by its aggressive chief executive, William A. Cooper, a former Detroit police officer, TCF is a staple on the acquisition rumor mill. That is because of its stock price, a track record of integrating purchases, and TCF's strong sales and marketing culture, Mr. Moran said.

Of course, analysts aren't altogether discounting the major commercial banks as potential acquirers. Particularly in California, out-of-state banks may not have much of a choice other than thrifts if they want to buy a sizable player.

"It's basically an issue of scarcity. As more of these large franchises disappear, the relative attraction of thrifts improves," said Charlotte Chamberlain of Wedbush Morgan Securities, Los Angeles.

The most serious obstacle she sees to such deals is the high cost of funds at thrifts compared to banks. Still, many banks have relatively low loan-to-deposit ratios right now, Ms. Chamberlain said.

The solution, she said, is to buy a thrift and "let the higher-cost funds run off." After all, she noted, "mortgages are better than Treasuries."

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