The financial markets were tingling with anticipation on news last month that ABN Amro Holdings would buy Standard Federal Bancorp of Troy, Mich., for $1.9 billion, or 2.6 times book value.
At last, Wall Street buzzed, here was a deal that could set in motion the long-awaited juggernaut of consolidation in the thrift industry.
What's more, theorized Lehman Brothers bank analyst Michael Mayo, the deal underscored the possibility that buyers could include foreign banks looking to extend their market share in America.
"European banks will have to decide whether they are going to further expand into America, or decide they don't have the scale and sell," Mr. Mayo said.
He mentioned HSBC Holdings PLC, owner of Marine Midland Bank; Allied Irish Banks PLC, owner of First Maryland Bancorp; and Royal Bank of Scotland, owner of Citizens Savings Bank in Rhode Island as companies likely to expand their U.S. presence by buying thrifts.
In thrifts' favor are low-priced stocks, compared with those of most banks. After the late 1980s debacle, surviving thrifts are stronger than ever. And in August, Congress made it more enticing to convert a thrift to a bank charter by eliminating a big tax liability on thrifts' bad-loan reserves.
With the door open for banks to expand by snapping up thrifts, banks will consider buying those in California and New York, said Thomas O'Donnell, the thrift analyst at Smith Barney. These huge markets, dominated by a handful of big banks, are otherwise impossible to penetrate, he argued.
But others say speculation that foreign or domestic banks are going to buy significant numbers of thrifts is premature.
"Frankly, I think most thrifts will buy each other out," said Thomas Finucane, assistant portfolio manager at John Hancock Advisers Inc. "I don't see a lot of banks going there."
This could be because even though some thrifts resemble banks, many more don't.
Conventional wisdom on Wall Street holds that expansion in the financial services industries should come from fee-generating services, like selling mutual funds. It's passe to build new branches and hire tellers.
But that's just what the Greater New York Savings Bank is doing.
"We're opening more branches and keeping staff," said Gerard Keegan, the thrift's chairman, president, and chief executive officer, who acknowledges the strategy is "counterintuitive." He adds that about one-third of the thrift's deposits are in old-fashioned passbook accounts.
Despite this unconventional approach, some say Greater New York, with $2.6 billion of assets and 15 branches in Brooklyn, Queens, and Long Island, could be an attractive takeover target.
"They've got a lot of loyal customers, and they're in Brooklyn, one of the biggest cities in the country by itself," said Daniel Perla, a managing director at Harbor Capital Management who has invested in the thrift. "Those positives are hard to overlook."
Rumors of future takeovers are clearly affecting thrift stock prices. Greater New York saw its stock jump 8.2% the day after the ABN-Standard deal was announced.
At the very least, ABN Amro's announcement signaled that thrift acquisitions won't come cheaply. On Dec. 4, Dime Bancorp., another New York City thrift, announced it would buy Bankers Federal Savings for $91.8 million, or 1.7 times book value.
Numbers like that tell thrift executives that the best thing is to wait until they receive an eye-popping offer.
"Obviously consolidation is coming," said John Tsimbonos, chief executive officer at TR Financial Corp., at a conference for institutional investors this month in New York. "But I think it's coming slower than a lot of you want."