Big California thrifts may soon be the targets of a takeover wave, according to analysts who follow the market.

Bolstered by a recovering economy and aggressive restructuring programs, large thrifts in the state are now solidly in the black, reversing big losses suffered earlier in the 1990s. Big-bank acquirers may see a thrift acquisition as a quick way to expand in the state. Once a deal happens, a wave of buying could ensue.

"Like a bell ringing, the stocks of the others should appreciate on signs of a takeover wave," said Thomas O'Donnell, an analyst with Smith Barney Inc.

"It will be like an ice jam or a logjam breaking up," predicted James Marks, a West Coast bank and thrift analyst for Hancock Institutional Equity Services.

Both said mergers are more likely in 1996 than this year. But they added deals could start popping at any time.

With relatively few big thrifts available, activity could be fast and furious. And buying is likely to be focused on thrifts rather than banks, which are seen as less likely to be sold.

BankAmerica Corp., No. 2 in the country, is too big to be bought, and Wells Fargo & Co. and First Interstate Bancorp are considered too expensive. Much of the next tier of California banks, including Union Bank and Bank of California, is controlled by Japanese companies that are unlikely to sell.

That leaves the big thrift companies - H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Great Western Financial, American Savings Bank, California Federal Bank, and Glendale Federal Bank.

Mr. Marks noted that while most of these stocks are trading at well above the eight times per-share earnings that is the norm for thrifts, they are relatively inexpensive as a multiple of expected earnings in 1996, when net interest margins will be fatter and bad-loan expenses will be lower.

He said the most likely buyers are big, out-of-state banking companies that operate in the western half of the country and have shown an appetite for acquisitions - notably Banc One Corp., NationsBank Corp., and Norwest Corp.

Another likely buyer is First Nationwide Bank, San Francisco, a thrift formerly owned by Ford Motor Co. that was taken over in October by Texas banker Gerald J. Ford, with backing from investor Ronald O. Perelman. Mr. Marks said Mr. Perelman and Mr. Ford seem intent on growing in California through acquisitions.

Los Angeles-based First Interstate may also be a buyer. But BankAmerica Corp. is already so big in the state that it would gain little by buying a big thrift - except a likely antitrust headache. Wells Fargo has shown little interest in thrifts, Mr. Marks added.

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