With consumer rates climbing more than 150 basis points since February, borrowers have been flocking back to adjustable-rate mortgages at a swift pace.

About a third of all home loans are now being made at adjustable rates, twice the January figure of 16%. And experts are saying that an upturn in the economy could carry the 30-year fixed rate above 9%, further strengthening the market for adjustables.

The growing preference for adjustables is good news for the nation's thrifts, which specialize in such loans. The percentage of loans they have been making at adjustable rates has already topped 50%.

The current return to ARMs is "a gift of the yield curve," says analyst Charlotte Chamberlain of Wedbush Morgan Securities, Los Angeles. When the difference between the short-term interest rates and the 30-year Treasury bond is wide, adjustables gain ground, Ms. Chamberlain said. Adjustables are linked to short-term rates, while the 30-year mortgage moves with long- term rates.

Indeed, the spread between fixed and adjustable mortgages grew from 1.71% in January to its widest point so far this year - 2.52% - in mid- April, according to HSH Associates, Butler, N.J.

Still, the spread between fixed and adjustables is less than it was in April 1994, when the rate on fixed mortgages was 3.5% higher than that on adjustables. That started an ARMs boom that reached its peak in January 1995, when almost 60% of all loans made carried adjustable rates.

The shift to ARMs creates winners and losers. Thrifts and banks, which can hold ARMs in their portfolios, gain market share, while mortgage bankers, who must sell all their loans into the secondary market, lose share. Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, which cannot match thrift prices on ARMs, see their loan production shrink as well.

Thrifts made 58% of their loans at adjustable rates in May, according to figures from the Federal Housing Finance Board. At mortgage companies, only 18% were adjustable, but that was up stoutly from the low of 5% reached in January.

One likely outcome of the shifting market share is that mortgage bankers will be hunting for friendly deals with their thrift competitors in ARM- rich states like California, predicted Sam Lyons, senior vice president of mortgage banking at Great Western Bank, Chatsworth, Calif. The deals would allow mortgage bankers to make ARMs for sale to thrifts.

Still, the widening spread is not all good news for the large California thrifts, Wedbush Morgan's Ms. Chamberlain said.

Thrift portfolios will grow only moderately as a result of the shift to ARMs, she said, and interest rate margins are "under pressure."

Lenders say that if inflation fears push 30-year fixed-rates past the 9% mark, there should be another marked pickup in ARM loans.

In the past, that's the point at which consumers have been most willing to make the tradeoff between financial certainty and a lower start rate, according to Daniel Schreiner, president of Kaufman & Broad Mortgage Co., Los Angeles. The mortgage company is affiliated with California's largest home builder.

Homebuyers reason that interest rates will likely fall, leading to lower rates on their ARMs, as well as the opportunity to refinance into a mortgage with a lower fixed rate, Mr. Schreiner says.

Mr. Schreiner said adjustable-rate mortgages were twice as popular in Kaufman & Broad's second quarter, which ended in May, than in the previous quarter. ARMs constituted 30% of the $260 million of loans the company made in the second quarter.

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