The largest thrift bond issue in recent memory has been a loser for investors.

Two months ago First Nationwide Holdings Inc., the private thrift owned by financier Ronald Perelman, issued $2 billion in senior notes through a subsidiary, GS Escrow Corp.

Mr. Perelman is using the proceeds to refinance the debt of First Nationwide, its subsidiary CalFed, and Golden State Bancorp, as he pursues a complicated merger.

At the time, investors enthusiastically flocked to the junk bonds because of their attractive high yields and cheap prices.

Today the same investors are selling. Spreads-the difference between their yields and those of Treasuries-on the bonds have widened considerably, indicating that the bonds are losing value.

Junk bonds, including the GS issue, have been hurt by a flight to quality, as investors fret about international economic turmoil. And the problems have been doubly severe for thrifts and other institutions that are sensitive to interest rates.

Investors in thrift securities are worried that their earnings will be hurt by a wave of homeowners refinancing their mortgages to take advantage of lower interest rates.

"It's a bad day in bond land," said one bond expert who declined to be identified, as bank and thrift spreads generally continued to widen Wednesday. Only real estate investment trusts "are worse than thrift bonds, and that is damning with faint praise."

Indeed, spreads on the three-year tranche of the First Nationwide issue, which came to market at 135 basis points over Treasuries, widened to as much as 150 basis points; the five-year tranche gapped out to 175 basis points, from 155; and the seven-year tranche swelled to as much as 215 basis points over Treasuries from their initial 165 basis points.

"I wanted to buy these bonds when they first came out," said one trader. "Thank God I didn't."

The business prospects of the company have not changed in the month since the debt was issued, said one investor who declined to be named, but the environment has. "Investors still love the story" of the CalFed-Golden State merger, but have no choice but to sell, to avoid further losses.

"Debt has succumbed to a general market malaise," said bank bond analyst Eric J. Grubelich of Keefe Bruyette & Woods. "Investors' perceptions are much different about interest rates, deflation, and the economy. Subsequently there is more concern about asset quality."

Bank bond analyst Katharine Rossow of Chase Securities Inc. pointed out that the problem with these GS Escrow bonds is that they are issued from a "mortgage operation in California, and mortgage operations are dependent on the U.S. economy. If we go through a difficult period, mortgage volume will drop off."

But GS Escrow bonds may be suffering more because of what is widely known as the "Perelman factor." Some investors charge that Mr. Perelman destroys the companies that he buys by funneling capital from one into another.

"If Perelman was gone, these bonds would tighten," said one analyst who declined to be identified. In fact, the combined company-Nationwide, CalFed, and Golden State-would have "a tangible equity to assets ratio of 1.3%, which is extremely low for a financial institution."

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