Three thrifts made intial public offerings of common stock Tuesday, the first of an expected wave of partial conversions.

In these transactions, minority stakes are sold to the public, with the thrift keeping the controlling interest. They way, the thrift gets an equity infusion without risking loss of control.

Coming to market Tuesday were First Federal Savings Bank of Colorado, Lakewood; First Federal Savings Bank of Siouxland, Sioux City, Iowa; and First Savings bank in Perth Amboy, N.J. They have assets between $400 million and $1 billion.

Others Already Visible

About nine other thrifts have registered or are planning to file similar sales with the Securities and Exchange Commission, investment bankers said.

"Even if you are well capitalized, it is important to have more capital," said Ben A. Plotkin, president of Community Capital Group, a division of Ryan, Beck & Co. Inc., a Philadelphia investment bank.

"Bank regulators have more influence over the thrift industry, and it is important to have stock because that's what the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. is used to seeing."

In these partial conversions, a mutual savings company forms a mutual holding company and an operating unit. Stock is sold in the unit. People's Bank in Bridgeport, Conn., did the first partial conversion in 1988.

Regulations Not Complete

The Office of Thrift Supervision has not finalized regulations for these conversions, but last year it said it would begin processing applications.

With the share prices of healthy thrifts rising, the timing is right for offerings, bankers and investment bankers said.

By doing a partial rather than a full conversion, a thrift limits the amount of equity raised. A full conversion might bring in more capital than the bank could successfully deploy, potentially wrecking returns on equity and stock prices.

But by starting with a sale of, say, 35% ownership, a thrift receives fresh equity and can raise more when needed by selling up to a 49% interest. To entice investors, a mutual conversion pays dividends of about 6.5%.

Control Is the Issue

The retention of control is critical for thrifts taking this route.

"We are not ready to give up control that could lead to a possible takeover or have a large group investing where they have more say in the policy of the organization than management," said Barry Backhaus, president and chief executive of First Federal Savings Bank of Siouxland.

The new stock offerings are aimed at individual investors, but many buyers are bank insiders, investment bankers said. This helps the thrift retain control.

Mr. Backhaus said he is interested in using new capital, which could total as much as $6.3 million, to finance acquisitions. A mutual holding company makes merging easier, since it can own more than one thrift. By having publicly traded stock, Mr. Backhaus has the currency to acquire another thrift.

One negative is that thrifts pay about the same costs, including fees to investment bankers, for a partial conversion as for a full one. If they plan to eventually sell 100% ownership in the holding company, as some do, they will incur the same costs again.

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