The number of thrifts in the United States fell below 2,000 in the first half, to the lowest level in decades. At the same time, the number of branch offices dropped to 13,180, down 9% in 12 months.

Meanwhile, assets of the top 300 thrifts climbed by $17.2 billion, or 2.2%, and offset a decline for the rest of the industry. Assets of all thrifts edged up by six-tenths of 1%. The result was yet another increase in the concentration of assets at the top, to 78.1% for the top 300, against 76.8% a year earlier and 71.3% in mid-1992.

But growth, even among the top thrifts, was far from homogeneous. The 10 biggest were a mixed bag, collectively showing a slight decline in assets.

The largest influence was a big decline at No. 3 World Savings and Loan, Oakland, Calif., which saw a big chunk of its deposits diverted to a sister company, World Savings Bank of Warren, N.J. Both are owned by Golden West Financial Corp., Oakland.

The story behind the numbers is hardly a new one. The thrift industry has been in transition for more than a decade, and remains so. Only the nature of the transition changes. Today, the industry is seeking to redefine itself as it moves farther away from its traditional role of support for the housing market.

The major direction has been a quest for the higher profit margins usually available in consumer finance. That is not a universal vision; some large thrifts still see a big future for mortgages as a core business, but with a smaller concentration than in the past.

This year, at least, the industry seems to be finding its way as profits set records. It has won a number of legislative battles, though some may have only short-term impact. Longer-term, the reduction in deposit insurance premiums should have a lasting impact on thrifts' bottom lines.

But the heady atmosphere that was evident at the recent convention of America's Community Bankers, the thrift trade association, may not last.

The thrifts still face stiff competition from mortgage companies, many of them bank-owned, with support from Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, the secondary-market agencies. Mortgage companies have been gaining muscle in originating adjustable-rate loans, which is prime thrift turf.

Indeed, James Montgomery, chairman of No. 2 Great Western Bank, Chatsworth, Calif., questioned the growing role of Fannie and Freddie at the convention and suggested the maximum loan size for the agencies should be capped.

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