Ford Motor Co. officials spent yesterday meeting with federal savings and loan regulators in Washington about the possibility of buying American Savings & Loan Association of California, but both sides denied they were any closer to sealing a deal than they were several months ago.
The denials didn't stop several banking and real estate executives from speculating that First Nationwide, Ford's savings and loan subsidiary, is close to announcing that it will buy the ailing California S&L under an agreement with the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.
The bank board, the federal agency that regulates S&Ls, is supervising the sale of American, the nation's largest S&L, and its parent, Financial Corp. of America. When FCA nearly collapsed in 1984, the bank board became the caretaker of the Irvine, Calif., company.
Ford submitted a proposal three months ago to buy American Savings & Loan.
A Ford spokesman would not describe yesterday's talks, saying only, "It's hard to say whether something is close or not close at this point."
Company officials cautioned that Ford nearly signed a deal for the S&L at one point but that the agreement fell through at the last minute. Talks have continued, but nothing is definite, the spokesman said.
"Discussions" with FCA "have continued from time to time in Washington and elsewhere," the spokesman said.
A bank board spokesman agreed, saying that yesterday's talks "were nothing special."
Anthony M. Frank, chairman of Ford's First Nationwide unit, has said that he wants to buy American Savings under a plan that would require a $1 billion contribution from the bank board and a $1 billion contribution from First Nationwide. The bank board wants First Nationwide to pay more.
First Nationwide has $15.2 billion in assets and is the sixth largest S&L company in the nation. Most of its holdings are outside California, one of the best markets for financial services. Buying American Savings would add $34 billion in assets to First Nationwide's balance sheet and give it 178 branches in California and more than $17 billion in deposits.
Citicorp, the nation's largest bank holding company, was also a potential bidder for FCA, but dropped out last month. Sources say Citicorp found the bank board's terms unacceptable and felt it was being used to make Ford raise its bid.
Ford has lots of money to spend on acquisitions -- $7.1 billion in cash reserves. At least $1 billion is said to be earmarked for First Nationwide.
The money is part of a $9.1 billion stash Ford has built up since the early 1980s through aggressive cost cutting and several years of record vehicle sales.
Bruce L. Blythe, onetime chief corporate strategist for Ford's European operations, was brought back to the United States earlier this year to oversee acquisitions. Blythe reports directly to Ford Chairman Donald E. Petersen.
Ford is using $2 billion of its $9.1 billion to buy back its stock. Most of the rest will be used to purchase electronics, defense and financial services companies -- the kind of businesses that could help to keep Ford in the black should car sales decline. Auto analysts predict such a decline in 1988 and 1989.