Some California thrifts are becoming banks -- at least in name

Further blurring the distinction between thrifts and commercial banks is the growing trend for California savings and loan associations (S&Ls) to change their names to savings banks.

In the process, the activity provides brisk business for signmakers and painters, as well as stationery printers.

Regulatory authorities are allowing the name changes, as bank deregulation continues, but formal applications are required. At least 10 California S&Ls have received approval, or soon will, to sport the words ''savings bank'' in their titles, something the thrifts have been itching to do for years. Other S&Ls are preparing paperwork for name changes.

To date, the biggest S&L authorized to switch is Great American Federal Savings & Loan Association in San Diego, which has 139 state-wide offices and $4 .5 billion in assets. It is expected to contract its name to Great American Savings Bank and enter, modestly at first, commercial lending. The move into a new lending area will be ''cautious and deliberate,'' says chairman Gordon C. Luce, and aimed mainly at small and middle-market businesses. ''Our commitment to housing will continue to remain strong,'' he says.

Already bearing new names are First Federal Savings Bank of California (formerly First Federal Savings & Loan of Santa Monica) and Security Federal Savings Bank (formerly Solano Federal Savings & Loan) in Vallejo. Among those granted approval March 31 were Farmers Savings & Loan in Dixon, to become Farmers Savings Bank, and Universal Savings & Loan in Rosemead, to Universal Savings Bank.

Adding to the growing homogenization of commercial banks and S&Ls is the new proclamation of Great Western Savings in Beverly Hills - the nation's second largest S&L - that it offers ''a new brand of banking.'

The intermingling of bank and S&L names really isn't new in California. Few would link the nation's largest bank, in terms of deposits, with a savings association. Yet San Francisco-based Bank of America's formal name for 53 years has been Bank of America National Trust & Savings Association.

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