Sales of thrifts have exploded in the Northeast this year, reflecting improved economic conditions.

Some 28 thrifts were sold in the New England and Middle Atlantic regions in the first seven months of the year -- up from 29 deals in all of 1993, according to the brokerage First Albany Corp.

In fact, the regions have accounted for more than 40% of thrift deals nationwide this year.

"There's certainly been a lot of activity, much higher than normal," said Joseph Blalock, an economist with the Savings and Community Bankers Association.

Thrift sales have increased because the East Coast's economy is healing and banks and thriftS, flush with capital, are looking to expand while they have the opportunity.

It's quick way to expand a loan portfolio when the market is otherwise slow, analysts note. And thrifts are prized because there are fewer small commercial banks left to acquire.

What larger banks find is "a product that is cheaper than .the commercials," said Gerard Cassidy, an analyst with Tucker Anthony's Hancock Institutional Equity Services.

As a result, Mr. Cassidy and other analysts expect the fast pace of thrift deals to continue.

The jump in sales is in stark contrast to recent years when Northeastern merger activity ground almost to a halt while banks and thrifts were occupied with nonperforming loans, said First Albany bank analyst Kevin T. Timmons.

The recession low occurred in 1991, when six savings institutions were sold in New England and the Middle Atlantic for $242 million.

The dollar volume of the deals rose to $1.9 billion last year and about $3 billion for the first seven months of this year.

Mr. Timmons said the increase shows that big banks' "problems were behind them and they were really focused on earnings" and finding an outlet for excess capital,

The pace of sales first picked up last summer in Massachusetts and has continued throughout 1994. Now, much of the action is happening in metropolitan New York, where four deals worth a total of $975 million were announced within 10 days at the beginning of the summer.

The largest was the merger of Dime Bancorp of New York City and Anchor Bancorp of Hewlett, N.Y. That deal, announced July 6, is worth about $540 million, about one-sixth of the total for the region this year.

In other metropolitan New York deals, North Fork Bancorp of Mattituck bought Metro Bancshares of Jericho for $142 million, New York Bancorp of Douglaston acquired Hamilton Bancorp of Brooklyn for $133 million, and Astoria Financial Corp. paid $160 million for Fidelity New York of Garden City,

Analysts say New York is poised for more deals. First Albany recently said in a report that Brooklyn, Queens, and adjoining Nassau County on Long Island are highly fragmented, with almost two dozen thrifts ripe for consolidation.

In particular, First Albany foresees possible takeovers of Haven Bancorp of Woodhaven, North Side Savings Bank of Floral Park, and Long Island Bancorp of Melville. Long Island Bancorp is also a possible buyer, along with Astoria Financial, the report said.

"The densely populated New York area offers a concentrated arena in which the acquisition formula works well," the report said.

The First Albany report also predicts sale prices will be well above current market levels. Since the beginning of 1993, Northeastern thrifts have gone for 140% to 190% of book value.

David J. Totaro, senior vice president of Dime Bancorp in New York City, said he wasn't surprised by the growth in mergers in the New York area.

"This is where all the banks are," he said. "It's a heavily banked area, and if there's any room for consolidation it's going to occur here. What we're seeing today is the beginning of a trend that should last for several years."

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