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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.

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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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