Astoria Financial is positioning itself to reap a hefty premium from any buyer that wants a crack at New York's affluent Long Island suburbs.

The $20 billion-asset thrift could fetch as much as $75 to $100 per share over the next two or three years from a banking company with such aspirations, said James Ackor of Tucker Anthony.

"If you're going to be national players, I can't imagine you ignoring that market," Mr. Ackor said.

Astoria has the second-biggest deposit share, behind Chase Manhattan Corp.'s, on Long Island, which has nearly seven million residents.

Mr. Ackor cited First Union Corp. and BankAmerica Corp. as potential purchasers. Spokespeople for both institutions declined to comment on the prospect, but both have acknowledged big growth plans, and neither has much of a presence in New York.

Shares of Astoria rose 50 cents Thursday, to $49.3125, on the favorable comments and on news that the thrift would soon be added to a Standard & Poor's MidCap 400 stock index.

Mr. Ackor does not anticipate a sale by Astoria this year. The thrift, he noted, remains too busy making its own acquisitions to bulk up to $30 billion or more in assets.

Currently trading at 10.6 times his 1999 estimate of $4.60 per share, the analyst said Astoria is an attractive stock even without an acquisition premium figured in.

The company has a track record of effectively integrating acquisitions, a proven ability to manage interest rate spreads, and superior efficiency in operations, Mr. Ackor said. "With a strong potential for upside earning surprises, the possibility of further interest rate cuts by the Federal Reserve, and a strong economy and housing market, Astoria's stock should be able to sustain momentum well into 1999."

Astoria will join the S&P midcap index on Jan. 13. The index is viewed as a key barometer of stock market activity and offers performance benchmarks for money managers.

Meanwhile, most indexes fell back on profit taking after Wednesday's big rally. News that the Brazilian state of Minas Gerais had defaulted on its debt, also cast a pall.

The S&P bank index added 1.28%, and the Dow Jones industrial average was off 0.08%. The Nasdaq bank index lost 1.16% and the S&P 500 0.20%.

Several large banks were able to buck the downturn, with BankAmerica rising $3.1875, to $67.5625; Chase Manhattan $3.0625, to $77.0625; Citigroup $4.25, to $58.625; and J.P. Morgan & Co. $1.75, to $113.

Shares of Valley National Bancorp in Wayne, N.J., fell 31.25 cents, to $29, after analyst Robert Patten of Lehman Brothers initiated coverage with an "outperform" ranking.

Like Astoria, Valley National is viewed as a long-range takeover target that is still making deals of its own.

The New Jersey institution "concentrates on building franchise value through accretive in-market acquisitions and through strategic de novo branching in high growth markets," Mr. Patten said.

The analyst said that proven strategy should result in earnings per share of $1.85 for 1999 and $2.05 for 2000, implying a growth of 7% and 10%, respectively.

The company's 45% efficiency ratio puts it in the same league as highly regarded institutions Fifth Third Corp., Cincinnati, and Firstar Corp., Milwaukee.

Earnings "will continue to be driven by quality loan growth, low credit costs, and excellent cost controls," Mr. Patten said.

He also sees the company beginning to leverage its balance sheet in an effort to more effectively use excess capital.

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