SAN FRANCISCO - Consolidation has winnowed to a handful the number of Western thrift companies able to buy Bank Plus, a $2.2 billion Los Angeles thrift that recently shed its regulatory shackles and announced it is negotiating with a potential buyer.
Given the company's past troubles over a subprime credit card portfolio, an acquirer would probably get a bargain price, analysts said, as well as more than $2 billion of deposits in Los Angeles and Orange counties, attractive markets.
One possibility, observers said, may be Jackson Federal Bank, a $1.13 billion-asset savings and loan in Brea, Calif., that is a unit of $45.3 billion-asset Jackson National Life Insurance Co. of Lansing, Mich. The California unit, which is run by chairman, chief executive, and president D. Tad Lowrey has been on the prowl recently, buying Highland Bancorp of Burbank, Calif., in October and three branches from Bank Plus' Fidelity Federal Bank subsidiary last year.
Jackson Federal declined to comment.
But the list of potential acquirers, derived from a survey of observers and analysts, is short. "The big thrifts probably have a large enough presence," in Southern California, said Joseph K. Morford 3d, an analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels here, and "there's not too many" midsize thrifts left.
Bank Plus declined to comment, but many analysts pointed to San Francisco-based Golden State Bancorp, parent of $61 billion-asset California Federal Bank, as a likely acquirer.
Golden State's management team, led by chairman and chief executive officer Gerald J. Ford, has a history of taking over beleaguered thrifts and turning them around for a sale, and most analysts expect Mr. Ford's team to do just that with their own company before long. Golden State recently abandoned acquisition talks with Bay View Capital Corp., a San Francisco thrift-turned-bank that shares some characteristics with Bank Plus - a base in a hot metropolitan market, a troubled loan portfolio, and previous intervention by regulators.
The problem is, Golden State isn't looking at Bank Plus. "We have looked at it in the past, but we aren't currently looking at it," president and chief operating officer Carl B. Webb said in an interview this week.
Then there's Washington Mutual Inc. The Seattle thrift giant has 72% of its deposits in California. In fact, the California thrifts bought by Wamu in 1997 and 1998 - Great Western Financial in Chatsworth and H.F. Ahmanson & Co. in Irwindale - were based less than 30 miles from Bank Plus' headquarters.
With just under 30 branches in the Los Angeles area, Bank Plus offers "a good foothold in the California market" and an opportunity to buy branches in a growing metropolitan area, said an analyst who declined to be named. He would not rule out an acquisition by Washington Mutual, particularly if the price were right, but said he thinks $195 billion-asset Wamu "has bigger fish to fry." A Washington Mutual spokeswoman did not return a call seeking comment.
And the third largest thrift on the West Coast, Oakland-based Golden West Financial, has avoided thrift deals since 1994, preferring to grow internally.
There is no legal barrier to a bank's buying a thrift, and both Salt Lake City-based Zions Bancorp, which owns California Bank and Trust, and San Francisco-based Wells Fargo & Co. have recently bought small consumer institutions in the state.
But history shows that like attracts like in these matters. "Another thrift is still the most logical buyer," said David Winton, an analyst who covers mid-cap bank stocks at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "The problem when you buy a thrift as a commercial bank, the branches generally have to be retooled for a lot of new products."
The tricky part of any deal may be Bank Plus' high-cost funding. Only about 20% of its deposits are considered core deposits. Golden State, for one, is only interested in acquiring banks or thrifts that "have good, core-funded retail deposits," said Mr. Webb. "I don't want to buy a big CD shop."
Besides the Big Three savings and loans, a handful of smaller thrifts such as Downey Financial could be interested, according to analysts.
FirstFed Financial of Santa Monica, for instance, last year bought a Bank Plus branch. But as with other smaller thrifts, the company's size - it has just more than $4.3 billion of assets - could be a problem, given the possibility that credit-quality issues may linger at Bank Plus.
James P. Giraldin, chief operating officer at FirstFed, declined to comment on Bank Plus. He said his company's acquisition strategy continues to be based on expanding its geographic reach in Southern California or adding expertise that it currently lacks.
After spiking roughly 20% on Friday, to $5.75 a share, Bank Plus' stock returned to more normal levels this week, closing Wednesday at $4.75 a share, down 2.56%.