Western Financial Savings Bank, the California thrift that broke out its profitable auto-lending operations into a separate subsidiary earlier this year, is preparing to sell a significant stake to the public.

The subsidiary, WFS Financial Inc., filed a registration statement with the Securities and Exchange Commission laying out plans to sell 3.8 million shares at $12 to $14 each.

The sale, which could raise as much as $53.55 million for WFS, will make the subsidiary 16.9% publicly owned, with the remainder held by Western Financial. Western Financial is a subsidiary of Westcorp, based in Irvine, with $2.9 billion of assets.

Westcorp officials declined to comment because the offering is still in registration.

Since 1990, originating auto loans for securitization and sale has been an increasing part of Westcorp's business.

Total serviced assets, including $1.8 billion of automobile and light- duty truck loans, were $5.9 billion on March 31.

Westcorp's originations of automobile and light-truck loans increased 18%, to $337 million, in the first quarter from the year-earlier period.

The boost in automobile loan originations was attributable to increased volumes in California as well as to continued expansion of origination activities in eight other Western states.

In April, Western Financial moved all its auto financing operations into its WFS subsidiary, making the thrift primarily a mortgage bank. WFS has 73 automobile lending offices in nine states, including 41 in California and 16 in Texas.

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