After years of steady growth by acquisition, Bank United Corp. of Houston may soon find itself on the other end of a deal.

Although the $18 billion company has made no bones about its own acquisitive nature, observers are now saying it is increasingly likely that Bank United's powerhouse management team, led by Lewis Ranieri, will sell.

On the short list of potential bidders: Washington Mutual Inc.

The nation's largest thrift, with $186 billion of assets, has not disguised its interest in expanding through acquisition, analysts say, particularly in fast-growing markets like California and Texas, and sources familiar with the situation say the two companies are drawing close to a deal.

Rumors that Wamu was interested in buying Bank United go back to 1998, when the Seattle thrift acquired California-based H.F. Ahmanson & Co., gaining 45 branches in the Dallas/Fort Worth and Houston markets.

"It makes all the sense in the world for these two institutions to get together," said James Bradshaw, an analyst at the regional brokerage D.A. Davidson in Portland. "It's just a question of price."

A spokeswoman for Wamu said the company would not comment on rumors.

A deal would mark the final chapter of a turnaround effort led by Mr. Ranieri, who is considered the founding father of the mortgage-backed securities market and who makes an extended appearance in "Liar's Poker," Michael Lewis' 1989 bestseller about Salomon Brothers' bond operation in the 1980s.

Together with president and chief executive Barry C. Burkholder and Anthony Nocella, Mr. Ranieri helped resuscitate an ailing Bank United in the wake of the savings and loan crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s. He owns about 4% of the company's stock, valued at about $47.5 million as of Tuesday.

Of late, however, he has been busy with projects outside the company. Indeed, he is the finance manager for Rep. Rick Lazio's campaign against Hillary Clinton for the U.S. Senate seat in New York. Reached recently at a Lazio campaign office in Manhattan, Mr. Ranieri declined to comment.

Verne Stockton, director of public relations, said Bank United, which told analysts during an earnings conference call last month that it was looking at acquisitions to expand its own franchise, has not changed from that position in recent weeks. The company has never publicly discussed a sale or merger with another large institution, he said.

During the conference call, Bank United executives were asked whether market conditions would allow it to undertake acquisitions anytime soon. "We're still entertaining people. We're in the hunt," Mr. Burkholder responded.

The rumors persist, despite some possible drawbacks. Paul Miller, a senior analyst at Friedman Billings Ramsey & Co., said Bank United "would fit into Washington Mutual's business model nicely."

But, he cautions, "there's not too many companies that would take Wamu's currency right now."

Like other thrift stocks, Wamu's has been advancing over the last few weeks. It closed Tuesday at $34.1875, not far from its 52-week high of $37 reached in November but still at a relatively modest multiple of about two times book value.

Shares of Bank United, which closed Tuesday at $39.6875, are also trading near their 52-week high of $41, also reached in November.

Analysts said it would be very understandable for Wamu to take an interest in Bank United. For one thing, Bank United is the largest thrift in Texas, with 3% share of the market for deposits, according to June 1999 data, the latest publicly available.

Bank United has a network of 155 branches in growing metropolitan markets, including 66 branches in Houston, 77 in Dallas, 5 in Midland, 4 in Austin, and 3 in San Antonio. It also has businesses that extend outside Texas, including 19 Small Business Association loan offices in 13 states (it is the fourth-largest SBA lender), and 11 mortgage origination offices in 11 states.

Like Wamu, "Bank United has been trying to deepen its relationship with the consumer," said R. Jay Tejera, an analyst with Ragen MacKenzie in Seattle.

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