The resignation of Thomas J. Owen as chief executive of the Washington area's largest thrift, Perpetual Savings Bank, sent shock waves through the local banking arena yesterday and raised new questions among consultants and analysts about the federal government's effort to clean up the nation's savings and loan industry.

"This is the first of the institutions to have trouble that everybody thought was impregnable -- whether that was illusion or reality -- so it's frightening," said Karen Shaw, an S&L industry expert with the Institute for Strategic Development.

Owen's resignation "was a big surprise," said John Pollock, president of Beltsville-based John Hanson Savings Bank. "Perpetual has been on the cutting edge, a leader in an awful lot of things."

After years of growth and diversification into commercial real estate and business lending, the Vienna-based thrift announced Tuesday that it would undergo sweeping changes in its business operation, dropping nearly all of its subsidiaries and returning to the basics of mortgage lending. The change in direction was coupled with a change in Perpetual's top management, with Owen stepping down but remaining chairman of the board. Perpetual's president, Ross C. Towne, took a leave of absence last month and will not return.

The announcements followed a series of recent financial setbacks that were triggered by the slowdown in the area's real estate market. In the first two quarters of this year Perpetual lost $63 million from the deterioration of its real estate loan portfolio.

Analysts said yesterday that the tough new regulations imposed on thrifts by last year's S&L cleanup bill exacerbated Perpetual's problems.

"If there had been no {bill}, Perpetual would still be having problems," said Alexandria-based S&L consultant Bert Ely. "But the legislation didn't help their situation, and in fact, it's really hurting them."

The legislation signed by President Bush last August ushered in a new era of thrift regulation, including more stringent lending guidelines and higher capital requirements that force thrift owners to increase their cash investment in the franchise to provide a bigger cushion against possible losses. The much-debated Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery and Enforcement Act (FIRREA) has forced many healthy lending institutions to restructure in an effort to conform to the new restraints.

Owen has said repeatedly that FIRREA, though well-intentioned, is placing an unfair burden on well-managed thrifts that have played by the rules in the past, and yesterday, he got many sympathizers.

"Owen was a man on the cutting edge," said Arnold Danielson, a bank and thrift consultant in Rockville. "He was one of the first to make his thrift a more bank-like operation. It's something I would have recommended. ... But today, he's suffering for those decisions."

Shaw, who lobbied hard on Capitol Hill for some of the legislation's toughest provisions, said yesterday that Perpetual's circumstance points to the heart of the confused public policy that the bill initiated.

"Congress claimed that it wanted a continued thrift industry dedicated to housing," she said. "On the other hand, they structured the future of the industry so that those thrifts that were strong, viable and well-managed before can no longer compete."