Even the biggest, best-run thrifts can't survive and prosper without partners.
That's the message analysts and industry executives are drawing from the announcement that Dutch giant ABN Amro has agreed to acquire Standard Federal Corp., whose thrift originates more mortgages than any other.
Thomas R. Ricketts, chairman of highly regarded Standard Federal, acknowledged that he agreed to the deal because he foresaw difficulty in continuing to grow and diversify.
"It's very hard to get from where we are as a thrift to banklike qualities without help," Mr. Ricketts said. Most large urban thrifts will ultimately come to a similar decision, he predicted.
Michael A. Moran, an analyst with Roney & Co., Detroit, concurrred. Standard Federal's deal is a "very clear and loud signal" that thrifts, by and large, won't make it as a single-line industry, he said.
Profits at most thrifts are under pressure because of declining margins in their traditional mortgage business, as well as their heavy reliance on high-rate certificates of deposit for funding.
Another influence on the acquisition trend is the fact that banks looking to expand in key markets often have few options besides acquiring thrifts, analysts said. This is especially true in California, where the giant thrifts could be the next takeover targets, observers said.
In the stable Middle West market, Standard Federal built itself into the largest mortgage originator among thrifts nationally and a solid presence in Michigan's deposit market. Along the way, it made itself into one of the nation's most profitable thrifts.
Still, the company chose to sell, concluding that it needed ABN Amro's deep pockets to make the consumer loans it has recently introduced, Mr. Ricketts said.
"If you want to compete with the big banks and the big financial players, (you) have got to have more services and products," Mr. Ricketts said. "If you're in Crossroads, Ind., or something, I guess you can stay as you are forever."
The limited expansion opportunities are certainly affecting banks' appetite for thrift deals. Banks used to say they didn't want thrifts because of their single product focus, said analyst Thomas O'Donnell of Smith Barney & Co., New York. But "each time they look, (thrifts) become less homely," he said.
In California, for example, the state's large and midsize thrifts are the most practical way for out-of-state banks to get a meaningful toehold, said analyst Charlotte Chamberlain of Wedbush Morgan Securities, Los Angeles.
After the state's two large banks, Bank of America and Wells Fargo, it's the thrifts that have substantial market presence. H.F. Ahmanson & Co.'s Home Savings of America, Irwindale, Calif., has $50 billion in assets; Great Western Bank, Chatsworth, has $43 billion.
The largest banks generally considered for sale, City National, Imperial Bank and West America, have between $2.5 and $4 billion in assets - a relatively small sum in California's huge market, Ms. Chamberlain said.
Indeed, Standard Federal's deal shows that banks are willing to pay good money for high-earning thrifts, analysts said.
At $59 a share, Standard Federal's purchase price is richer than for any previous deal and sets "a new gold standard," Ms. Chamberlain said.
ABN Amro is paying 2.6 times Standard Federal's tangible book value and 2.1 times its stated book value.
Not all thrifts will sell out, however. A few, such as Golden West - which has excelled at the traditional business by cutting costs to a bare minimum - are too dear for most banks to buy, Ms. Chamberlain said.
The moral, said Mr. O'Donnell, is "if you're a traditional S&L, you better be a very good traditional S&L, such as Golden West or Washington Federal."
Otherwise, you're not going to make it on your own, he said.