Friday, October 2, 2009

Banks With 20% Unpaid Loans at 18-Year High Amid Recovery Doubt

By James Sterngold, Linda Shen and Dakin Campbell, Bloomberg

Oct. 2 (Bloomberg) -- The number of U.S. lenders that can’t collect on at least 20 percent of their loans hit an 18-year high, signaling that more bank failures and losses could slow an economic recovery.

Units of Frontier Financial Corp.,Towne Bancorp Inc. and Steel Partners Holdings LPare among 26 firms with more than one-fifth of their loans 90 days overdue or not accruing interest as of June 30 -- a level of distress almost five times the national average -- according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data compiled for Bloomberg News by SNL Financial, a bank research firm. Three reported almost half of their loans weren’t being paid.

While regulators may not force firms on the list to close, requiring them to raise capital and curb loans may impede recovery in Florida, Illinois and seven other states. The banks are among the most vulnerable of a larger group of lenders whose failures the FDIC said could cost $100 billion by 2013.

“There are some zombie banks out there,” said Bert Ely, chief executive officer at Ely & Co., a bank consulting firm in Alexandria, Virginia. “Neither the banking industry nor the economy benefits from keeping weak banks in business.”

Ninety-five banks have failed this year at the fastest pace in almost two decades, depleting the FDIC’s insurance fund. The agency proposed on Sept. 29 that financial firms prepay three years of premiums, which would add $45 billion of reserves. The fund sank to $10.4 billion as of June 30, the lowest since 1993. It will run at a deficit starting this quarter, the agency said.

Non-Current Loans

The cost of this year’s failures to the FDIC equals 25 percent of the banks’ assets, according to agency data. Applying the same ratio to the $14.1 billion of assets held by the 26 lenders on SNL’s list means the FDIC could face additional losses of $3.5 billion.

Non-current loans averaged 4.35 percent of the total at U.S. banks as of June 30, the most in 26 years of FDIC data. Regulators typically take notice at 5 percent, according to Walter Mix, a former commissioner of the California Department of Financial Institutions. Corus Bankshares Inc.’s bank unit in Chicago was shut Sept. 11 after 71 percent of its loans soured.

The last time so many banks had 20 percent of their loans more than 90 days overdue was in 1991, near the end of the savings-and-loan crisis, when there were 60, according to an SNL analysis of FDIC data. That year the number of bank failures was less than half those at the peak of the crisis in 1988; this year closings are almost four times what they were in 2008.

For banks with 20 percent of loans overdue, “either they’ve got a massive amount of capital, or the FDIC just hasn’t gotten around to them,” said Jeff Davis, an analyst withFTN Equity Capital Markets in Nashville. Lack of staff and money are slowing shutdowns, he said.

Enforcement Orders

At least 17 of the 26 banks have been hit with civil penalties or enforcement orders that demand improved management and more capital, according to data compiled by Bloomberg. Failure to comply can lead to seizure.

The number of distressed banks is larger, with the FDIC counting 416 companies on its confidential list of “problem” lenders at mid-year.

The data were compiled by Charlottesville, Virginia-based SNL from FDIC records. Institutions that had loans less than 50 percent of assets were excluded, as were those closed since the end of June. The calculation didn’t include restructured loans modified after borrowers couldn’t keep up with the original terms, which have default rates of 40 percent to 60 percent within two months, according to SNL senior analystSebastian Hindman. Had such loans been included, the list would have swelled to 49 lenders holding $48.4 billion in assets.

Local Impact

Firms range in size from Frontier Bank in Everett, Washington, with $3.98 billion in assets, to Gordon Bank in Gordon, Georgia, with $35 million in assets. Six of the banks are in Florida and five in Illinois.

“While these aren’t your giant banks, they are the guys your local strip mall and commercial real estate investors get their funds from,” said Joseph Mason, a Louisiana State University banking professor and visiting scholar at the FDIC.

The bank with the highest level of non-current loans, 49 percent, is Community Bank of Lemont in Lemont, Illinois, a town of about 13,000 people 30 miles southwest of Chicago. Bad loans at the bank, about a third of them in construction and development, increased fivefold from a year earlier, according to FDIC data.

In February, the FDIC ordered Lemont, a unit of Oak Park, Illinois-based FBOP Corp., tostop “operating with management whose policies and practices are detrimental to the bank and jeopardize the safety of its deposits.” Calls to the bank seeking comment weren’t returned.

’A Surprise’

Another Illinois lender, Benchmark Bank, also had an increase in non-current loans, to 25 percent as of June 30 from about 1 percent a year earlier.

“Everything was so positive for so long in this area, it came as a surprise when it stopped,” said John Medernach, Benchmark’s CEO, who added that a building boom and bust in his region may have wrecked more than just his balance sheet.

“I stop and think of all the rich farmland that has been developed into subdivisions during the boom years,” Medernach said. “It makes you wonder what we’ve been doing.”

Frontier Bank, owned by Frontier Financial, reported a sixfold rise in overdue loans to $764.6 million in the quarter ended June 30 from a year earlier, or 22 percent, according to FDIC data. More than 43 percent of the bank’s delinquent loans were in construction and development, FDIC data show. The bank has 51 branches in northwestern Oregon and western Washington.

Steel Partners

In July, Frontier Financial agreed to be acquired by SP Acquisition Holdings Inc.,controlled by CEO Warren Lichtenstein, who heads the New York-based investment firm Steel Partners LLC, according to a presentation on the bank’s Web site. The deal would give Frontier access to about $456 million and create ’’an over-capitalized bank’’ that may consider acquisitions, the presentation said. The stock-swap transaction is scheduled to be completed in the fourth quarter.

Frontier “was a well-run organization for the majority of its history,” said Jeffrey Rulis, a banking analyst at D.A. Davidson & Co. in Lake Oswego, Oregon. The offer by SP Acquisition is “probably not what current shareholders envisioned a couple of years ago.” The company’s stock has dropped 92 percent in the last 12 months, and the bank posted an $84 million loss in the first half.

Patrick Fahey, Frontier’s CEO, said the transaction will resolve the bank’s credit issues. He declined to elaborate while a shareholder vote is pending.

Regulatory Art

Lichtenstein’s Steel Partners Holdings LP controls WebBank, a Salt Lake City lender with $35.5 million in assets and 31 percent of its loans overdue, according to SNL. More than 90 percent of construction and development loans weren’t current as of June 30, according to the FDIC. John McNamara, WebBank’s chairman and a managing director at Steel, declined to comment.

Determining which banks to close is “more of an art than a science,” said William Ruberry, spokesman at the Office of Thrift Supervision, which regulates four of the 26 lenders. “Examiners and the supervisory people have a lot of information that’s not public, and they know the circumstances of an institution and everything that goes into it.”

FDIC spokesman Greg Hernandez said in an e-mail that the agency doesn’t comment on individual institutions. Capital levels, profitability and financial strength of the owners are considered in addition to soured loans when deciding a bank’s fate, Hernandez said.

Sources of Capital

“There may be personal guarantees, there may be other collateral that will more than make up for the impairment on the 20 percent,” said Tom Giallanza, assistant superintendent for the State of Arizona Department of Financial Institutions, in a Sept. 15 interview. One bank on the list, Mesa, Arizona-based Towne Bank of Arizona, is in Giallanza’s state, with 28 percent of its loans non-current. Towne Bancorp CEO Patrick Patrick declined to comment.

H&R Block Bank, with 29 percent of its loans overdue, is dwarfed by the Kansas City, Missouri-based tax preparer that owns it. The bank’s deposits totaled $720.1 million as of June 30; assets at the parent company, H&R Block Inc., included more than $1 billion in cash and cash equivalents on July 31. The lender’s balance sheet is strong enough to be considered “well- capitalized” by regulators, according to FDIC reports.

The bank is a legacy of H&R Block’s subprime home lending that ended with more than $1 billion of losses for the parent company. The unit was kept open because it’s an inexpensive way to fund the company’s financial products, President Russell Smythsaid a year ago. Spokeswoman Elizabeth McKinley didn’t respond to requests for comment.

Pace of Closures

Regulators may be pacing themselves on closings because the FDIC fund “is only so big,” there isn’t enough staff to close all the struggling banks at once and customers aren’t staging mass withdrawals that would force action, said Kevin Fitzsimmons, a managing director at Sandler O’Neill & Partners LP, a New York brokerage firm specializing in banks.

While a high level of non-performing assets doesn’t mean a bank can’t survive, “in some cases it creates a hole that’s too deep to climb out of,” Fitzsimmons said.

To contact the reporters on this story: James Sterngold in New York; Linda Shen in New York at;Dakin Campbell in San Francisco at

Last Updated: October 2, 2009 00:01 EDT