Household International Inc. is becoming a player in subprime auto lending. It said Monday it would buy ACC Consumer Finance Corp. for a whopping 6.6 times book value.

Household, which analysts say has been trying to build its own subprime auto finance unit for several years, paid $200 million in cash and stock, or 18 times estimated 1997 earnings, for ACC, a San Diego auto lender. The deal is expected to close by the end of the year.

Although ACC has avoided the pitfalls that hurt some of its competitors in the past year, and its management team is considered one of the best, analysts still questioned the deal.

"The price is extremely rich," said Reilly Tierney, analyst at Fox-Pitt Kelton. He added that ACC would likely have conducted a stock offering if it hadn't sold now, and the offering would have raised its book value.

Household executives were not available for comment.

Analysts said the price fetched by ACC bodes well for shareholders at other auto lenders, such as AmeriCredit Corp. and Consumer Portfolio Services Inc., which have also weathered the subprime storm and continue to post strong credit quality and high earnings.

"The shakeout has really cleaned up the industry. We know who has quality management now and the sector has never looked better," said Salomon Brothers analyst Michael Durante, who believes other big finance companies, such as GE Capital Corp., may soon make their own acquisitions at similar prices.

Rocco J. Fabiano, ACC's co-founder, chairman, and chief executive, will become head of Household's new subprime auto unit. He said he hadn't been shopping his company, but when Household called the offer was too good to refuse. "The market is consolidating into larger players and we felt this was a good partnership," Mr. Fabiano said in a telephone interview.

ACC buys installment contracts from car dealers in 38 states who make loans to consumers with "C" credit.

Mr. Fabiano got his start in subprime auto finance as executive vice president at Imperial Corporation of America in the mid-1980s. From 1989 to 1990 he was chairman of Far Western Bank. The company was seized in 1990 by federal regulators for failing to meet risk-based capital requirements, Mr. Fabiano said.

In August 1995, Mr. Fabiano was acquitted of criminal charges related to a signing bonus from a financial institution, according to ACC's initial public offering prospectus. After leaving Far Western, he started Consumer Portfolio Services, another subprime auto lender, in 1991 before co- founding ACC in 1993.

ACC's soon-to-be owner, Household, has little experience in the kind of indirect lending done by ACC. Most Household loans are made through its branches or by issuing credit cards.

For this reason, analysts say the merger could be tough for Household to absorb. "This doesn't quite fit into what they already have," said Mr. Tierney, who observed that ACC's customers will be poor candidates for Household's credit cards and home equity loans because most are already heavily in debt and few own their homes.

Nevertheless, ACC boasts a stellar 10.2% return on assets and 34.1% return on equity, and the analyst consensus is that earnings will grow 21% next year.

The company's collection efforts are said to be particularly good, and ACC has been less willing than many competitors to extend terms to delinquent customers, according to Darrell Hendrix, an analyst with Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

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