H.F. Ahmanson & Co.'s decision to end its hostile pursuit of Great Western Financial concluded one drama but launched another, many analysts said Wednesday.

"The countdown has started on how much longer H.F. Ahmanson can remain as an independent company," said Charlotte A. Chamberlain of Jefferies & Co., Los Angeles.

Investor pressure for quick returns and diminished market share in California will push Ahmanson to sell, several analysts said.

The most likely acquirer: Washington Mutual Inc., the Seattle thrift that rescued Great Western from Ahmanson and is plainly interested in growing a lot larger in California. Washington Mutual could make a move on Ahmanson within six months or a year-at a price that would be hard to turn down, analysts said.

Jonathan Gray of Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. estimated that Washington Mutual could cut costs and ramp up revenue at Ahmanson to justify a price of $60 a share in 1998. On its own, Ahmanson's earnings won't justify that stock price until 2001, Mr. Gray estimates.

Ahmanson's former president, Fredric Forster, acknowledged that a merger with Washington Mutual would make sense. "The consolidation advantages are stupendous, if Washington Mutual wants to make a run at Ahmanson-one, two, or three years from now."

"But Ahmanson might have evolved into something different and become more attractive to a bank by then," he said. Mr. Forster left Ahmanson last year, and founded Financial Institutional Partners LLC, an investment banking firm in Irvine, Calif.

Because big banks showed little interest in buying Great Western, many believe they won't be attracted to Ahmanson either.

For its part, Ahmanson maintained in a press release Wednesday that it would focus on building its small-business and consumer loan franchises, cutting costs and buying back shares. Ahmanson's chairman, Charles R. Rinehart, has been following this strategy for a couple of years now.

But investors won't settle for that, said David Ellison, formerly manager of Fidelity Select Home Finance Portfolio.

Building the retail bank "is nice, but it takes a long time," Mr. Ellison said. Investors will demand quicker results, and those will come if Ahmanson is acquired or does some other deals itself, he said.

Mr. Ellison now manages the FBR Financial Services Fund offered by Friedman, Billings, Ramsey & Co.

So whom might Ahmanson acquire?

The short list, analysts say, includes the midsize California thrifts, whose overlapping operations would yield large cost cuts, though not as large as a merger with Great Western. Among them: Coast Savings Financial Inc., Los Angeles; Glendale Federal Bank; and California Federal Bank, San Francisco.

Of these, Glenfed would be the best fit for Ahmanson, said Campbell K. Chaney of Sandler O'Neill & Partners, San Francisco. It has the smallest concentration of mortgages linked to the Federal Home Loan Bank cost-of- funds index-a type of loan Ahmanson and some other thrifts eschew these days. It is also furthest along in building its checking accounts and small-business and consumer loans, Mr. Chaney said.

Coast's chairman, Ray Martin, was noncommittal on the prospects of being bought by Ahmanson. "We just continue to operate independently unless someone comes along," he said Wednesday.

In an interview last week, CalFed's president, Carl Webb, appeared to signal his thrift's interest in talking to Ahmanson, saying CalFed would likely be on Ahmanson's list of potential targets.

One other intriguing combination surfaced yesterday. Mr. Gray of Sanford C. Bernstein said he thinks Golden West Financial, the most traditional of California's thrifts, could be interested in acquiring Ahmanson.

Mr. Gray said Oakland-based Golden West, which specializes in funding home loans with certificates of deposits, could halve Ahmanson's general and administrative expenses-from 150 to 70 basis points-to make the acquisition pay. u

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