Here's a safe bet for uncertain times: A lot of banks won't survive the next year of upheaval despite the U.S. government's $700 billion plan to restore order to the financial industry.
The biggest question is how many will perish and how they will be put out of their misery — in outright closures by regulators scrambling to preserve the dwindling deposit insurance fund or in fire sales made under government pressure.
Enfeebled by huge losses on risky home loans, the banking industry is now on the shakiest ground since the early 1990s, when more than 800 federally insured institutions failed in a three-year period. That was during the clean-up phase of a decade-long savings-and-loan meltdown that wound up costing U.S. taxpayers $170 billion to $205 billion, after adjusting for inflation.
The government's commitment to spend up to $700 billion buying bad debts from ailing banks is likely to save some institutions that would have otherwise died, but analysts doubt it will be enough to avert a major shakeout.
"It will help, but it's not going to be the saving grace" because a lot of banks are holding construction loans and other types of deteriorating assets that the government won't take off their books, predicted Stanford Financial analyst Jaret Seiberg. He expects more than 100 banks nationwide to fail next year.
The darkening clouds already have some depositors pondering a question that always seems to crop up in financial panics despite deposit insurance: Could it possibly make more sense to stash cash in a mattress than in a bank account?
"It sounds like a joke," said business owner Mauricoa Quintero as he recently paused outside a Wachovia Bank branch in Miami. "But it sounds safer than the turmoil out there right now."
Not as many banks are likely to fail as in the S&L crisis, largely because there are about 8,000 fewer today than there were in 1988.
But that doesn't necessarily mean the problems won't be as costly or as unnerving; banks are much larger than they were 20 years ago, thanks to laws passed in the 1990s.
"I don't see why things will be that much different this time," said Joseph Mason, an economist who worked for the U.S. Treasury Department in the 1990s and is now a finance professor at Louisiana State University. "We just had a big party where people and businesses overborrowed. We had a bubble and now we want to get back to normal. Is it going to be painless? No."
With more super-sized banks in business, fewer failures could still dump a big bill on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the government agency that insures bank and S&L deposits. The FDIC's potential liability is rising under a provision of the bailout that increases the deposit insurance limit to $250,000 per account, up from $100,000.
Using statistics from the S&L crisis as a guide, Mason estimates total deposits in banks that fail during the current crisis at $1.1 trillion. After calculating gains from selling deposits and some of the assets of the failed banks, Mason estimates the clean-up this time will cost the FDIC $140 billion to $200 billion.
The FDIC's fund currently has about $45 billion — a five-year low — but the agency can make up for any shortfalls by borrowing from the U.S. Treasury and eventually repaying the money by raising the premiums that it charges the healthy banks and S&Ls.
Through the first nine months of the year, 13 banks and S&Ls have been taken over by the FDIC — more than the previous five years combined.
The FDIC may be underestimating, or least not publicly acknowledging, the trouble ahead. As of June 30, the FDIC had 117 insured banks and S&Ls on its problem list. That represented about 1 percent of the nearly 8,500 institutions insured as of June 30. Entering 1991, about 10 percent of the industry — 1,496 institutions — was on the FDIC's endangered list.
Although the FDIC doesn't name the institutions it classifies as problems, this year's June 30 list didn't include two huge headaches — Washington Mutual Bank and Wachovia. Combined, WaMu and Wachovia had more than $1 trillion in assets; the assets of the 117 institutions on the FDIC's watch list totaled $78 billion.
Late last month, WaMu became the largest bank failure in U.S. history, with $307 billion in assets, nearly five times more, on an inflation-adjusted basis, than the previous record collapse of Continental Illinois National Bank in 1984. The FDIC doesn't expect WaMu's demise to drain its fund because JP Morgan Chase & Co. agreed to buy the bank's deposits and most of the assets for $1.9 billion.
Regulators dodged another potential bullet by helping to negotiate the sale of Wachovia's banking operations to Citigroup Inc. in a complex deal that could still end up costing the FDIC, depending on the severity of future loan losses. On Friday, a battle of banking giants erupted when Wachovia struck a new deal with Wells Fargo & Co. without government help, and Citigroup demanded that it be called off.
The banking outlook looks even gloomier through the prism of Bauer Financial Inc., which has been relying on data filed with the FDIC to assess the health of federally insured institutions for the past 25 years.
Based on its analysis of the June 30 numbers, Bauer Financial concluded that 426 federally insured institutions are grappling with major problems — about 5 percent of all banks and S&Ls.
About 15 percent of the banks on Bauer's cautionary list have more than $1 billion in assets. Not surprisingly, the troubles are concentrated among banks that were the most active in markets where free-flowing mortgages contributed to the rapid run-up in home prices that set the stage for the jarring comedown. By Bauer's reckoning, the largest numbers of troubled banks are in California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois and Minnesota.
"It's important for people to remember that not all these banks are going to fail, just because they are on this list," said Karen Dorway, Bauer Financial's president. "Many of them will recover."
James Barth, who was chief economist of the regulatory agency that oversaw the S&L industry in the 1980s, doubts things will get as bad as they did then.
"It's scary right now, but it's not as scary as a lot of people are making it out to be," said Barth, now a senior fellow at the Milken Institute, a think tank.
Mani Behimehr, a home designer living in Tustin, Calif., isn't feeling reassured after what happened to WaMu and Wachovia. After he heard the news that WaMu had been seized and sold to JP Morgan, he rushed out to withdraw about $150,000 in savings and opened a new account at Wachovia only to learn about its sale to Citigroup two days later.
"I thought this is the strongest economy in the world; nothing like that happens in this country," said Behimehr, 46, who is originally from Iran.
The tumult is creating expansion opportunities for healthy banks. Industry heavyweights like JP Morgan, Citigroup and Bank of America Corp. have already rolled the dice on major acquisitions of financially battered institutions in hopes of becoming more powerful than ever.
Smaller players like Clifton Savings Bank in New Jersey are bragging about their relatively clean balance sheets to lure depositors away from rivals that are wrestling with huge loan losses. The bank, with about $900 million in total assets, says just one of its 2,300 home loans is in foreclosure.
"There is going to be a flight to quality," predicted John Celentano Jr., Clifton Savings' chief executive. "People are going to start putting their money in places that were being run the way things are supposed to be run: the old-fashioned way."
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