Analysts who have spent most of this decade awaiting a tidal wave of mergers among California's thrifts finally saw their patience rewarded last year. Now they're mounting the merger vigil in metropolitan New York.
New York has four big thrifts-Dime Bancorp, GreenPoint Financial Corp., Astoria Financial Corp., and Long Island Savings Bank. Between them, the thrifts have hundreds of branches in a compact, densely populated market that is very competitive.
The pluses of doing in-market deals are obvious-big savings through the consolidation of overlapping branches and back offices and more marketing muscle. The merged survivors would also be juicier targets for out-of-state banks like NationsBank Corp. or First Union Corp. that want a toehold in New York.
But no one wants to sell.
"We have been waiting for someone to blink," said James Ackor, vice president of equities research at Tucker Anthony Inc. in Portland, Maine.
Last year's big deal-New York Bancorp's sale to North Fork Bank of Melville, N.Y., "hasn't created the domino effect we'd expected," Mr. Ackor said. The Douglaston, N.Y., thrift sold itself for 4.8 times its book value to North Fork.
The two biggest thrifts - Dime and GreenPoint-have been linked in rumors lately. They declined comment.
But neither shows signs of wanting to sell. Each has a strong business plan to create a national mortgage franchise and an energetic chief executive.
Still, Mr. Ackor and other analysts said Dime and GreenPoint, among other New York thrifts, may be forced to reevaluate their options because of the costs and difficulties of adapting their computer systems to function in 2000.
"If you're sitting on the fence, rather than go through all these very complicated and difficult processes to be year-2000 compliant, this may be a very good time to sell," Mr. Ackor said.
"Perhaps the year-2000 issue will push some over the edge," said Goldman Sachs analyst Michael Hodes. But he added that he had not sensed a greater willingness so far to sell.
Mr. Ackor warned that thrifts that want to merge should do so by midyear. "The window is going to shut through the third and fourth quarter of the year" because by then it may be too late to begin integrating another institution and its year-2000 problems.
Dime is in "an enviable position" on the year-2000 compliance front, said Jack L. Wagner, Dime's chief information officer. Much of the thrift's data processing is done by Jacksonville, Fla.-based Alltel Information Services Inc., which will provide new applications that take care of the year-2000 problem. Dime will have adapted its systems by yearend, Mr. Wagner said.
Rich Humphrey, senior vice president at GreenPoint, said its systems also will be ready for 2000 by yearend.
Salomon Smith Barney analyst Thomas O. Donnell said there is another reason why New York thrifts might be more inclined to sell soon.
"People are looking for 2.5 to 4 times book," which is harder with falling stock prices, Mr. O'Donnell said. The fear of missing a rich deal because of a volatile stock market could change some thrifts into sellers, he said.
"Those who wait and wait and wait could be an ugly duckling," said George Engelke, president of Astoria.
"If I don't see a future for myself as an independent company, should I be picking a partner?" he mused.
But Mr. Engelke said he feels no pressure from shareholders to sell. Astoria will be a buyer, not a seller, he said. Nor does the thrift have a big year-2000 problem, he said. The company outsources its data processing to M&I Bank, Milwaukee, and Alltel.
Many of the thrifts have been public companies for a short time and are still "having fun," he said.