Californians who were saying "it can't happen here" have changed their tune.

Some forecasters had thought that because of California's history of population growth, the downturn would be mild and brief.

But they now see a full-scale recession in progress, and anaIysts and investors suddenly view the state's real estate, particularly the overbuilt market around Los Angeles, as a major threat to banks.

The attitude among bankers in the state is one of "unrelieved despair," said Lloyd Lynford, president of the Reis Reports, a real estate data analysis firm, after a visit to clients in the state. "It's comparable to New York City 15 to 18 months ago."

In the last month, there have been several signs of the changed sentiment, including:

* David Hensley, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles, released an economic report that concluded: "No, this is not Texas; this is much worse."

* Ken Rosen of the University of California at Berkeley had been an optimist. But in a forecast on commercial real estate prepared for Citicorp and then leaked to the Los Angeles Times, he turned pessimistic.

* Real estate exposures prompted equity analysts to lower earning estimates on the state's big banks and thrifts. Bond investors registered their concern by demanding that BankAmerica Corp. pay a big premium over Treasury securities on a debt offering last week.

The seeds of the recession have been in place for some time. The Southern California economy is beset by contraction in the aerospace, defense, and entertainment industries.

The cost of housing is high. Tough environmental regulation and growing red tape are viewed by some as burdens on business. And state budget cuts also are seen as a contractionary force.

Leases Expiring

Mr. Lynford attributed the new feeling of despair to the expiration of leases that were signed in the boom years. It is at expiration time that the damage of an overbuilt market first begins to flow to the bottom line of landlords and their lenders, as tenants negotiate more favorable terms.

When this happens, Mr. Lynford said, there suddenly seems to be no bottom to the slide in real estate values. But the ratcheting down of prices to a more realistic level is a needed step to recovery, he pointed out.

"Where it hits the bankers," said Bram Goldsmith, chairman of City National Corp., "is where they have a construction or miniperm loan" and the borrower has to get an extension.

Mr. Goldsmith's Beverley Hills banking company has taken huge reserves for realty losses. In the second quarter it lost $62.6 million, with nonperforming loans equaling 10.5% of loans and foreclosed property.

"They're obligated to reappraise the property," he said. "The big key is, what's the cash flow? It's driving some collateral values down."

Of the three biggest California banks, Wells Fargo & Co. is the most vulnerable to the market, said George Salem, an analyst at Prudential Securities Inc. He said Wells' nearly 5-to-1 ratio between commercial real estate loans ($14 billion) and equity ($3 billion) was the highest among the stocks he follows.

And BankAmerica's savings from acquiring Security Pacific Corp. are "not large enough to offset the loan quality deterioration we envision," he said.

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