Liberty Bancorp's announcement that it is in negotiations to sell itself has the rumor mill humming.

Analysts speculate that Harris Bankcorp, NBD Bancorp, First Chicago Corp., or Cole Taylor Financial Group could be interested in acquiring the $576 million asset thrift company to expand their market share in Chicago.

Milwaukee-based Security Capital Corp. could also be in the running to get a foothold in the market, the analysts say.

The analysts said Liberty, the holding company for Liberty Federal Savings Bank, could command about $35 a share in an acquisition. The thrift company recently retained Adams Cohen Securities as its financial adviser.

'Not in Anything Risky'

Liberty is a well-run conservative thrift that would be a "safe" bet for an acquirer, said Daniel L. Westrope, first vice president at Howe Barnes Investments in Chicago. "They're not in anything risky."

Joseph Stachnik, chief financial officer with the thrift, declined to comment on the negotiations.

Industry watchers said Liberty's announcement last week that it was negotiating an acquisition deal wasn't unexpected.

"They have been identified as a takeover candidate 'for a while," Mr. Westrope said.

Christine Pavel, an analyst at the Chicago Corp., said rising interest rates have slowed the mortgage business at thrifts like Liberty,

"I'm not surprised [Liberty is in negotiations] because ifs not really a good year for the traditional thrifts," she said.

The analysts say an in-market acquisition makes the most sense.

Wide-Open Field of Buyers

"I don't think ifs a big enough beachhead for someone who's not in the market now," said Mr. Westrope, who says the field of acquirers is wide open. He thinks NBD Bancorp, First Chicago Corp., Harris Bankcorp, and Cole Taylor Financial Group could be the most interested.

Wayne R. Bopp, a thrift analyst at Stifel, Nicolaus & Co., St. Louis, said Liberty's long-standing relationship with Harris makes that company "my first guess." Liberty has expanded its mortgage portfolio by buying mortgages that Harris originated, he said.

The analysts say there are also rumors that Milwaukee's Security Capital Corp. may make a run for Liberty to get into Illinois. Although Security doesn't have a presence in the state, it could combine Liberty with other acquisitions.

"An alternative strategy could be you buy a lot of medium-sized players," Mr. Bopp said.

Stock Price Seen at $35 or $36

Analysts estimated Liberty's stock price at an acquisition at about $35 or $36. Liberty's stock closed Monday at $30.25.

Earlier this week, Liberty announced second-quarter earnings of $1.3 million, down from $1.7 million from second-quarter 1993. Its net income for the first six months .was $2.6 rail-" lion, down from $3.3 million a year ago.

Liberty converted from a federally chartered mutual savings bank to a federally chartered stock savings bank in December 1991.


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