WASHINGTON - The Office of Thrift Supervision swooped down Friday on three of the nation's biggest sick thrifts, most notably Carteret Savings Bank of New Jersey.

The round of seizures ended a two-year struggle by Carteret and its owners to restore the thrift's capital from the private sector.

New Jersey's largest thrift franchise, with $4.8 billion in assets, is now up for grabs. Along with 31 branches in New Jersey, Newark-based Carteret owned nine offices in Florida and one in Washington.

Until it can be sold or liquidated, Carteret will operate in a conservatorship managed by the Resolution Trust Corp.

The same fate befell Second National Federal Savings Bank of Salisbury, Md., with $1.57 billion in assets, and Security Savings Bank of Vineland, N.J., with $1.24 billion.

Two New England institutions not regulated by the OTS were also closed: Heritage Bank for Savings of Holyoke, Mass., and Burritt Interfinancial Bancorp. of East Hartford, Conn.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. sold $1.2 billion of Heritage's assets to Fleet Financial Group's Massachusetts bank. Portions of the $524 million-asset Burritt were sold to Derby (Conn.) Savings Bank.

The spate of seizures comes two weeks before regulations are to take effect mandating the closure of thrifts and banks whose tangible equity falls below 2%. Friday also was the last day for Timothy Ryan as director of the OTS.

End of Red Ink

Carteret earned $9.1 million in the first nine months this year, primarily by reducing operating expenses and disposing of nonperforming assets. It seemed an impressive turnaround from losses of $131.8 million in 1990 and $160 million in 1991.

But the OTS said the profits were "insufficient to overcome a significant level of nonperforming and underperforming assets," and termed "highly improbable" the thrift's chance of restoring capital through core earnings alone.

Carteret's losses were concentrated in commercial real estate and residential development loans. As of Sept. 30, $523 million, or 11% of total assets, was classified as substandard, doubtful or loss. Tangible capital was negative $61.7 million.

Suitors Backed Out

If Carteret had gotten the necessary capital, it would have been the largest thrift to be rescued without taxpayer funds since enactment of the 1989 thrift-bailout law. But four times over the last year or so, recapitalization deals were announced, only to unravel.

Kohlberg & Co. withdrew a planned $200 million infusion in August, and investors led by the Carlyle Group did the same in November.

Sources close to AmBase Corp., Carteret's parent company, reported that regulators rejected a last-minute acquisition proposal by PNC Financial Corp. of Pittsburgh.

Since 1988, Carteret was a subsidiary of AmBase, a diversified financial company formerly known as Home Insurance Co. and Home Group Inc. After spinning off its nonthrift holdings, AmBase put former Dillon Read & Co. investment banker Richard A. Bianco in charge of Carteret in May 1991.

Mr. Bianco was generally given high marks for cleaning up Carteret's balance sheet, streamlining, and improving its ability to attract investors.

Second National's problems stemmed from poor underwriting of high-risk construction and commercial real estate loans during a period of rampant growth in the 1980s. the OTS said.

As of Sept. 30, Second National had $230.8 million in nonperforming assets, 14.7% of the total. The S&L had $8.6 million in tangible capital, and lost $1.7 million in the first nine months of this year.

Henry A. Berliner, Second National's chief executive and president, said in an interview last week that he was negotiating with OTS officials for an extension of its capital plan calling for as much as $40 million through a rights offering.

Mr. Berliner, a prominent and colorful Maryland attorney, resigned recently from the Thrift Depositor Protection Oversight Board, which advises the Resolution Trust Corp.

Meridian Pact

Security Savings Bank in New Jersey also was a victim of collapsing real estate markets. Classified assets totaled $123.2 million, or 10.3% of total assets. It lost $12.9 million in the first nine months and had $1.1 million in tangible capital.

In a bid for survival as a smaller entity, Security agreed in July to sell 21 branches, including $820 million in assets, to Meridian Bancorp of Reading, Pa. Meridian issued a statement Friday that it "is prepared and desires to honor the terms and conditions of its branch purchase and assumption agreement."

In a similar situation, the RTC recently allowed Mellon Bank Corp. to proceed with the purchase of eight branches from the failed Standard Federal Savings Bank of Gaithersburg, Md.

Before Friday's announcements, the RTC had 77 thrifts in conservatorship with $67.7 billion in total assets. Of the 77, 12 had more than $1 billion in assets, for an aggregate of $52.8 billion.

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