The three largest California thrifts reported solid first-quarter earnings results, on the strength of widening interest margins.

H.F. Ahmanson & Co., the nation's largest thrift, reported first-quarter earnings of $64.8 million against a loss a year earlier. No. 2 Great Western Financial Corp. earned $71.3 million in the first quarter, up 64%, and Golden West Financial Corp., parent of World Savings Bank, earned $75.5 million, up 48%.

But some analysts focused instead on a less optimistic number - mortgage volume. Each of the three thrifts reported sharp drops in originations.

Ahmanson's Home Savings, Irwindale, Calif., made $1.3 billion of home loans, down 24%; Great Western's loan originations fell 52%, to $1.2 billion; and World Savings' loan volume was down 33% to $1.2 billion.

Why the sharp declines?

The latest quarter was particularly tough for thrifts. With the interest rate on 30-year fixed-rate loans averaging 7.54%, the adjustable rate loans that thrifts like to make were hard sells. The first quarter of 1995 was exactly the opposite, making the comparison unfavorable.

Further, a spokesman for Home Savings said the decline there reflected tougher underwriting standards as the thrift pursued stronger profits instead of market share. The thrift is seeking to shrink its mortgage portfolio and return capital to investors to increase profitability.

But analyst Charlotte Chamberlain of Wedbush Morgan Securities Inc. in Los Angeles, dismissed the notion of a cyclical, ARM-based reason for the decline. She said she worries that the large California thrifts, particularly the two biggest, are losing market share to mortgage bankers permanently.

After all, she argued, the big thrifts offer a wide range of fixed-rate products as well. "You can go to Great Western and basically get anything you get at Countrywide," said Ms. Chamberlain.

Jonathan Gray, an analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein & Co., New York, said he thinks large thrifts, including Great Western and Ahmanson, may be in an "organizational funk."

"A lot of portfolio lenders may have lost some of their will after trying to compete unsuccessfully with Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac and their cohorts, the mortgage bankers," Mr. Gray said.

But Sam Lyons, senior vice president of mortgage banking at Great Western, insisted that mortgages remain a priority. He said, however, that making fixed-rate loans and adjustable rate loans at a thrift required "a challenging balancing act."

"The problem is, when you get into a pure fixed-rate market, a mortgage banker is totally focused, and there is no question as to what their goal is. Every loan must be sold," said Mr. Lyons. At a thrift, the focus is more diffuse, he said.

If thrifts are losing market share to mortgage bankers, permanently or otherwise, the government-sponsored enterprises are clearly reaping the benefits.

Earnings at Fannie Mae - the Federal National Mortgage Association - jumped 15% year-to-year to $566.5 million. Its mortgage portfolio grew at a 14% annualized rate, and on March 31, stood at $261 billion.

Freddie Mac - the Federal Home Loan Mortgage Corp. -earned $301 million, up 16.7% from the same period a year ago.

Freddie's earnings were fueled by an astonishing 52% growth in its mortgage portfolio, which stood at $45.2 billion on March 31.

Analysts predicted substantial loan growth at both mortgage agencies, even as rising long-term rates cut back fixed-rate loan volume.

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