Investors are beginning to shop for bargains in the depressed shares of thrift institutions, now that short-term interest rates may be near a peak.

"Historically, the thrift stocks have been almost entirely interest rate plays. They usually do very well as rates stabilize," said analyst Gary Gordon of PaineWebber Inc., New York.

"If rates top out in the first half of 1995, then thrift stocks may do well later in the year as they discount expected improvements in net interest margins and, consequently, in earnings," said analyst Thomas O'Donnell of Smith Barney Inc., New York.

Last year, thrift equities were battered as the Federal Reserve raised rates sharply in an effort to rein in growth of the economy and head off any upsurge in inflation.

But after doubling the sensitive overnight federal funds rate to 6% in the past 12 months, the central bank may be nearly done tightening credit.

"You can see it in the way the stocks have traded recently," said Mr. Gordon. "The California thrifts reported pretty poor fourth- quarter earnings, but their stocks still did very well."

Many economists think the Fed, which last raised rates on Feb. 1, will not weigh further any rate increases until late May. By that time, the nation's economy clearly may be cooling off.

Another thing favoring the thrifts, in contrast to the last down cycle in rates, is the lack of credit problems. Nor is the healthy part of the industry still tainted by the costly and controversial federal salvage operation for some failed institutions.

"Hopefully, it will be a little different this time," said Mr. Gordon. "The last period of stable rates, from 1991 to 1993 coincided with nasty loan quality issues. California thrifts and New York and New England thrifts all suffered from some pretty horrendous problems.

"This go-round, the industry as a whole should be much cleaner," he said. "They've squeezed out all the excesses from the 80's and very few of them have done anything overly risky in the '90's."

Thrift investing at the point that rates stop rising involves a year or so of waiting time for earnings results to justify the higher prices the stocks command at that stage of the business cycle.

Thrifts aggressively market their main product, adjustable- rate mortgages, during periods of rising rates, because traditional fixed-rate mortgages are then less attractive to homebuyers.

Last year, thrifts gained market share from fixed-rate lenders and booked many new assets for the longer term. Revenues from those new loans will not improve until next year after the loans' teaser rates end, and they begin approaching market levels.

In the meantime, the thrifts' margins typically are squeezed and earnings are hurt.

"The market is saying we know these thrifts are rate plays, we know there is a delay between changes in rates and changes in their earnings," Mr. Gordon said.

He rates the big three California thrifts as "attractive." They are H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Great Western Financial Corp., and Golden West Financial Corp.

"They have taken the opportunity to make hay while the sun shines, they've grown their portfolios rapidly. When the margin improvement comes, it will be on a much bigger base of loans," he said.

Mr. O'Donnell said he had heard "anecdotal evidence" that adjustable- rate mortgage pricing by thrifts is becoming less aggressive, a sign that the institutions themselves sense a turn in the cycle.

He offered a scenario: A near-term topping out of rates along with more rational pricing of adjustables, followed by an end to the margin squeeze.

As these events unfold, there should be substantial stock price appreciation among thrifts. He said he would "not be surprised to see some banged-up high-quality shares bounding back 30% or more."

Besides the California big three, his thrift picks are Charter One Financial Corp., Washington Mutual Savings Bank, Standard Federal Bank and Dime Bancorp.

In other news, Salomon Brothers analyst Diane Glossman upgraded Mellon Bank Corp. to "buy" from "hold." In late trading, the stock was up 62.5 cents to $37.125 a share.

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