Boston — The US savings-and-loan industry, which got into trouble by carrying old low-interest home mortgages, thinks it may have found partial salvation by doing business someplace else.
One of these places is commercial real estate, traditionally the province of insurance companies, banks, pension funds, and companies in the full-time business of mortgage lending. The S&Ls participating in this commercial market are floating construction and purchase loans for apartments, condominiums, office buildings, shopping centers, light industrial parks, and other income-producing real estate.
These S&Ls find themselves in the ironic position of having a lot of spare cash lying around -- and growing -- at the same time they are losing money because of those old mortgages. With interest rates still in the high teens, there just aren't enough new home mortgages being written to offset the old ones , leaving the thrifts highly liquid.
For a few S&Ls, commercial lending has been going on several years. Most, however, have only stepped into the income property waters in the last year or so.
''It is the only way we can stay a viable industry,'' said William Benton, executive vice-president of Lamar Savings & Loan Association in Austin, Texas. ''Many S&Ls will not be able to survive the next few years. We fully intend to be one (of the survivors).''
Lamar Savings started commercial lending about a year ago, Mr. Benton said, using the same source of money many other S&Ls are using: proceeds from mortgage payments and the sale of All-Savers certificates and participation certificates. This last instruments, known as PCs, allow the thrifts to bundle up many old mortgages and sell them on the ''secondary mortgage market'' to private mortgage companies or to one of several mortgage corporations set up by the US government.
Since the start of the year, Benton added, S&Ls have had another source of liquidity from individual retirement accounts (IRAs).
The S&L lending, says Alan Crittenden, publisher of a Nevada City, Calif., newsletter on real estate financing, falls into several categories. S&Ls start by writing one- or two-year construction loans to get the project started. They might then write another short-term loan to carry the developer until all the units are sold or rented. They will then write mortgages for buyers to help complete the final sales.
These loans, Mr. Crittenden said, usually run two or three percentage points above the prime lending rate, currently standing at 161/2 percent. And if the prime shifts, so do the interest rates, moving up or down during the life of the contract, but always staying a couple of points above prime.
In some cases, notes David Dresnick, a vice-president of the State Savings & Loan Association of Stockton, Calif., S&Ls are moving into commercial lending because ''insurance companies and pension funds have slowed down their lending. We find it an attractive lending opportunity, with markets for us nationwide.''
While Mr. Dresnick may be able to find markets all over the country, that has not been the case with most S&Ls. One ingredient necessary to a successful construction lending program, notes John Hyink, senior vice-president of Texas Federal Savings & Loan Association in Dallas, is an active construction industry. This explains the fact that most of the S&Ls writing these loans are in the South and West, particularly in Texas and California.
''We have the real estate market that can let us use the new financial techniques to help ourselves,'' Mr. Hyink said.
''It is the geography,'' agreed William Kellinger, senior vice-president of Imperial Savings & Loan in San Diego. ''There has been a lot of construction in California. Some of it started in 1980, but a lot more got started in 1981.''
But S&Ls in the Northeast and Midwest can also participate in this market, Hyink of Texas Federal added. This week, in fact, he is completing a multimillion-dollar package that will be only partly underwritten by his institution. The rest of it will be carried by a few other S&Ls, including one in the Baltimore area.
But income property is not the full financial salvation for S&Ls. Most are anxiously awaiting the advent of lower interest rates, Crittenden says. ''Unless rates come down substantially this year, we'll see many of them going out of business,'' he said.