Buyers may be lining up to acquire WaMu

Washington Mutual Inc., the savings and loan that put itself up for sale after losing half its market value in two weeks, has attracted several potential bidders for all or part of the bank, a person familiar with the matter said Thursday.

The person, who asked not to be identified because the negotiations are private, declined to identify the bidders, though three other people with knowledge of the talks said earlier that JPMorgan Chase & Co., Citigroup Inc., Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. may bid for WaMu. Buyers may be interested only in pieces of Seattle-based WaMu, those people said.

Banks may have to merge to survive after the credit crunch led Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. to bankruptcy, Merrill Lynch & Co. to a buyout by Bank of America Corp. and American International Group Inc. to a government takeover.

As Morgan Stanley weighs an alliance with Wachovia Corp., lenders including Wells Fargo are scouting assets after U.S. companies lost $1 trillion in market value.

WaMu spokesman Brad Russell declined to comment, as did JPMorgan spokesman Joseph Evangelisti. Spokesmen for the other banks named as potential bidders weren't immediately available for comment.

On Monday, in a TV interview about his acquisition of Merrill Lynch, Bank of America CEO Ken Lewis said he wasn't interested in buying Washington Mutual.

“Too much regional overlap,” the boss of the coast-to-coast financial conglomerate explained on CNBC. “We don't need anything else geographically. We're in 78 percent of the population bases.”

Shares of WaMu advanced 98 cents, or 49 percent, on Thursday to $2.99, the highest since Sept. 9. Its 78 percent skid this year is still the biggest in the 24-company KBW Bank Index.