Is H.F. Ahmanson & Co. getting ready to ditch the Big Apple?

Several sources said they've heard that the nation's largest thrift holding company, based in Irwindale, Calif, is negotiating the sale of its New York branch system to GreenPoint Financial Corp.

Some believe that Ahmanson would receive a 5% deposit premium, or about $400 million, from GreenPoint, then turn around and buy Bay View Capital Corp. or SFFed Corp., San Francisco Bay area thrifts whose stocks have been surging lately. (See story on Bay View, page 4.)

If a deal goes through, the capital-rich GreenPoint could pick up as many as 60 branches in New York City and its suburbs and nearly $8 billion in deposits.

Neither Ahmanson nor GreenPoint would comment on the reports.

Ahmanson, which owns Home Savings of America, with $53 billion in assets, has said it wants to focus on its most profitable markets in California, Texas, and Florida.

"Over the last six to eight months, the avowed strategy of Ahmanson has been to build on strength with an eye toward beefing up franchises that they believe they can build up toward dominance," said analyst Thomas F. Theurkauf of Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. in New York.

The deal, which observers said would likely be in cash, would also resolve a key problem dogging the $7 billion-asset GreenPoint: how to leverage millions in excess capital. With $1.5 billion in equity capital, the Flushing, N.Y., thrift has an equity-to-assets ratio of 22%.

"People are starting to get a little itchy with regard to what their plan is for all their capital, and this certainly would put an end to that," said Gary Ford, bank equity analyst with H.C. Wainwright. "They have enough capital to quadruple their size if they want to. It would be a big bang all at once and would use up all of their capital."

The rumored deal might not sit well with some of GreenPoint's institutional investors, however.

Nick Adams, portfolio manager of First Financial Fund, which holds 9% of GreenPoint's stock, said the thrift's management has been very cautious in approaching any purchase and "has shown a lot of discipline in not paying high bids."

"GreenPoint is shareholder oriented, and they would be loath to pay more than a 2% to 3% deposit premium," he said."We'd be furious if they paid more."

Juliana Ratner and Daniel Kaplan contributed to this report.

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