By ERIC DASH, New York Times
After contending with nearly 240 bank failures since the financial crisis struck, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation is finally getting some help from private investors.
A spate of recent banking takeovers and investments suggests that stronger financial institutions and private investment firms see value in the detritus of American banking. That is good news for the F.D.I.C., which has had to shoulder the cost of failures through its deposit insurance fund, causing the fund to sink into the red.
“We are seeing light at the end of the tunnel,” Sheila C. Bair, the head of the F.D.I.C., said in a recent interview.
Now that some troubled banks are being taken over by private investors, rather than closed by the government, the pressure on the F.D.I.C. is beginning to ease. On Thursday, the agency, which administers the fund protecting savers’ deposits, is expected to announce that it lowered the amount of money it set aside to cover future losses by more than $3 billion during the first quarter — the first reduction since the second quarter of 2007.
The news is not all good, of course. Seventy-two banks have collapsed this year, and banking analysts worry that more failures will follow, particularly among small and midsize lenders exposed to troubled commercial real estate.
But with the economy stabilizing, banks that otherwise might have fallen are regaining their footing. The nation’s biggest banks — the ones considered too big to fail — have roared back in terms of profitability thanks to ultralow interest rates. Analysts say the growth of both troubled consumer and corporate loans has begun to trail off.
“We have been out of the recession long enough that it is starting to filter into the banking system,” Ms. Bair said. Not long ago, analysts predicted that the financial crisis and recession might claim 1,000 of the nation’s 8,100 lenders. Now, they foresee perhaps 500 or 750 failures.
“For the U.S. commercial banking industry, the worst is over,” said Gerard Cassidy, a financial services analyst at RBC Capital.
One reason that troubled banks are surviving is that other banks, as well as investors who specialize in companies in distress, are swooping in, looking to buy lenders inexpensively. More buyers are showing up at F.D.I.C. auctions, and to avoid a bidding frenzy, some are doing deals with little or no government help.
On Monday, for instance, TD Bank of Canada announced that it would buy the South Financial Group. Private investors recently have plowed money into other troubled institutions, like Synovus Financial, Sterling Financial and Pacific Capital Bancorp.
Now that the economy is improving, investors are growing more confident that problem loans are at or near their peak. That confidence has been reflected in banking stocks, which have soared 111 percent from their low in March 2009, as measured by the KBW bank index.
In April, Thomas H. Lee Partners spent $134.7 million for a minority stake in Sterling Financial, a lender based in Spokane, Wash., that has been hobbled by bad real estate loans.
More recently, Gerald J. Ford, the billionaire investor who made a fortune during the savings and loan crisis, invested $500 million for a 91 percent stake in Pacific Capital Bancorp of Santa Barbara, Calif. The bank had been trading at around $4. Mr. Ford paid 20 cents a share.
When it bought three banks in April, TD Bank agreed to swallow a bigger share of their future losses than is typical in an F.D.I.C.-assisted deal. On Monday, TD paid a mere 20 cents a share for South Financial. Although the F.D.I.C did not provide any aid, TD did get some federal help. The Treasury Department agreed to sell $347 million of South Financial preferred shares and warrants for a bargain-basement price of $130.6 million.
“Without a doubt, there is more confidence than a few months ago,” said Bharat B. Masrani, the head of TD Bank’s United States operations. “There is more transparency and confidence in the ultimate losses of these institutions.”
Andrew Williams, a Treasury spokesman, said that it had agreed to the discount, as in previous deals, to “minimize or eliminate our chances of incurring further losses” on its investment in the bank.
Of course, such unassisted deals may still be the exception for at least the remainder of the year. The F.D.I.C. is expected to add to its list of problem banks — now 702 — when it releases its quarterly report on Thursday. The agency does not disclose which banks it considers troubled, nor does inclusion on the list mean that a bank is in imminent danger of failure.
Most of the banks on the list are tiny community lenders, largely in the Southeast and Midwest, that would be more attractive if they were bundled together rather than sold as stand-alone entities. Many of the potential buyers for these banks — particularly other lenders that are still trying to shore up their finances — need government help to pursue deals.
“We are not in any danger of running out of failed banks,” said Wilbur L. Ross, a prominent bank investor. “The only question is how much investor demand there will be.”