The phenomenal growth of Washington Mutual Inc., widely applauded in the past, is starting to raise some concerns on Wall Street.
The proposed acquisition of H.F. Ahmanson & Co., unveiled on Tuesday, marks the third jumbo-sized expansion move in less than three years for the aggressive Seattle thrift.
"You certainly have to wonder if they can pull off the integration," said Kevin Timmons, who follows thrifts for First Albany Corp. "This deal is huge."
"Past performance is no guarantee of future success," added E. Gareth Plank, thrift analyst at UBS Securities, echoing the warning label familiar from mutual fund prospectuses.
These analysts and others, however, said Washington Mutual stands a better chance than most companies of making a success of the deal, based on its merger track record.
Less than a year ago, Washington Mutual bought Great Western Financial. That means that if the Ahmanson deal goes through, it will have swallowed the two largest thrifts in Southern California. It bought a third thrift in the area, Irvine's American Savings Bank, in December 1996.
The nation's most successful banks and thrifts are adept at making deals work. But the roster of those who have stumbled is also impressive.
For audacity, one analyst said, Washington Mutual and its chief executive, Kerry K. Killinger, now seem on a par with NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp., and those companies' forceful leaders, Hugh L. McColl Jr. and Edward E. Crutchfield Jr..
Indeed, Washington Mutual and Mr. Killinger have many fans in the investment community. The company's stock price has barely been dented by its energetic expansion over the past several years.
Still, fame on Wall Street can be fleeting.
"If you've been successful, the market tends to not bet against you until after you fall," Mr. Timmons said. "Just look at what happened to Wells Fargo."
The San Francisco banking company was a Wall Street darling until its reputation was tarnished after it ran into unexpected trouble integrating First Interstate Bancorp. following a hostile takeover battle.
In the consumer banking sector, merging two institutions involves melding systems for tracking deposits, withdrawals, ATMs, debit cards, and a plethora of other activities.
Growth as rapid as Washington Mutual's can strain management capacity for handling such complicated changeovers smoothly, many analysts say.
Washington Mutual also will face big challenges in attracting customers and protecting its huge loan portfolio from big shifts in interest rates, analysts said.
"I don't see credit risk as the biggest hazard," said Gary J. Gordon, an analyst at PaineWebber Inc. who followed the California company for more than 10 years. "Ahmanson is largely focused on home mortgage loans and the housing market is in good shape. I'd worry more about interest rate risk and product pricing."
He added, "The big questions are whether they can retain, and hopefully increase, the customer base without spending more and more money to do it. The dangers lie in higher marketing costs per customer and taking on more rate risk to grow the company."
He noted that revenues at Ahmanson have actually shrunk over the last three years.
"If you're buying a company and paying a big price, something has to happen," Mr. Gordon said. "You have to get those revenues up.
"That is going to be a really tough challenge," he asserted. "Ahmanson's key asset is the adjustable mortgage, which is falling out of favor."
Similarly, attracting new depositors will be daunting in California's competitive banking environment. "BankAmerica Corp. and Wells Fargo," he said, "will not be excited about giving up chunks of their franchises."