Shares of Hamilton Bancorp, a New York thrift, soared Thursday on takeover speculation.

Hamilton, which is based in Brooklyn, rocketed $2.75 in price to $30 per share as trading opened. Later, the shares settled back to $28.50, but they are still up 44% during the past month.

Hamilton, with $750 million in assets, is one of a group of New York thrifts that are increasingly seen as likely acquisition targets for financial institutions eager to raise their share of the New York consumer banking market.

Others include the Greater New York Savings Bank, Dime Savings Bank, North Side Savings Bank, Crossland Federal Savings Bank, Fidelity New York, and Queens County Bancorp.

In a statement, Hamilton said it was not currently in any negotiations. But it acknowledged it had hired a financial adviser and was "exploring alternatives to maximize shareholder value."

The movement of the Hamilton stock "clearly suggests the market thinks a merger announcement is imminent," said Thomas J. Romano of McConnell, Budd & Downes Inc., Morristown, N.J.

Mr. Romano said that two big New York thrifts, GP Financial Corp. and Astoria Financial Corp., "represent the two most likely buyers, possessing excess capital and the complementary franchises that would maximize the deal-related cost savings."

A new study by Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. points out that thrifts have a 29% share of the $300 billion-deposit metropolitan New York market. Excluding the corporate bastion of Manhattan Island, their share is 49%.

Moreover, the economy of the region, which has a population of 12 million, seems to have bottomed out. Modest job growth occurred last year and has been continuing this year.

"The New York savings bank industry is expected to rapidly consolidate in the next two years," Thomas F. Theurkauf Jr. of Keefe Bruyette said in the report. "Hamilton represents a low-risk value for larger competitors to build revenues and market shares in attractive markets."

Mr. Theurkauf noted that Hamilton's core deposits -- passbook, NOW, and checking accounts -- are a lofty 57% of total deposits. As a result, its average cost of deposits was only 3.14% in the fourth quarter of last year.

Moreover, the thrift has a strong capital position after its conversion last year from mutual status. And its asset quality is exceptional, with combined nonaccrual loans and foreclosed properties amounting to only 1.3% of total assets at year-end 1993.

Hamilton operates eight branches in "stable, demographically attractive neighborhoods of Brooklyn," plus four other branches in Nassau County, the adjacent Long Island suburbs.

Mr. Romano said Thursday he was surprised at the rapid growth of interest in Hamilton, even though it seems likely the thrift is "near the top of many capital-rich acquirors' wish lists."

Mr. Theurkauf said a takeover price for Hamilton could range from $32 to $35 per share. Mr. Romano said it could be "well into the $30s."

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