Bank Crisis Vanishes As Clinton Arrives

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PRESIDENT Clinton can knock the banking and thrift industries off of his list of dangers facing the nation.

"There is no banking crisis," says Ronald Mandle, a bank analyst with Bernstein Research. He assumes the economic recovery in the United States will continue at a modest pace.

Banks and thrifts are raking in the money. Commercial banks posted record earnings in the third quarter of 1992 - $8.6 billion, double the $4.3 billion in the same quarter of 1991. This week several major banks reported better fourth-quarter profits and fewer nonperforming assets than analysts had anticipated.

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The 1,941 thrifts (savings banks or savings and loan institutions) not in the hands of the government's Resolution Trust Corporation reported profits of $1.36 billion for the third quarter and more than $4.1 billion for the first three quarters of 1992. That compares to profits of almost $3.3 billion for all of 1991.

The list of endangered banks and thrifts is getting shorter. The failure of Congress last year to provide more funds to clean up the mess gave some institutions the time they needed to put their finances on a sound basis. Instead of the delay costing Uncle Sam money, it may have saved money.

In the 1980s, the cost of the thrift crisis seemed to escalate every other month. Then alarm bells were sounded about a similar commercial banking crisis that would cost taxpayers many billions. During the fall election campaign, candidate Ross Perot talked of a "December surprise" when stricter capital requirements for banks were imposed.

"That was only in Ross Perot's head," Mr. Mandle says.

Just before leaving office, the Bush administration lowered its estimate of federal spending needed this fiscal year to deal with failed institutions in these two industries to $15.5 billion. Last July the cost had been put at $59.4 billion. The change reduces the fiscal 1993 budget deficit by about $44 billion from what it would have been otherwise. Nonetheless, the recent budget issued by President Bush still figures a $327 billion deficit this year, up from $290 billion in the fiscal year that ended l ast Sept. 30.

Taking advantage of an unusually large spread between the interest rates on short-term money they borrow (such as deposits) and the interest rates they charge on loans, banks and thrifts have been cleaning up their balance sheets. Looking at the banking industry, Ferguson & Co., a consulting firm based in Irving, Texas, comments: "The industry has ... made remarkable progress in restoring safety and soundness to the system."

The nation's 11,588 banks added $11 billion to their equity capital in the third quarter. That, notes Ferguson, ratcheted up the ratio of equity capital to total assets for the industry to 7.67 percent, the highest level in more than 25 years.

The thrifts were able to boost their comparable ratio, tangible capital to tangible assets, to 5.92 percent at the end of the third quarter 1992. That, says Ferguson, is up from 5.21 percent at the end of 1991. Their troubled-loan ratio also dipped to 4.41 percent from 4.63 percent at the end of 1991.

Robert Warren, a consultant with Ferguson, is concerned somewhat about the prospects for banks and thrifts in California, where the weak economy has depressed real estate prices. He also wonders what will happen to the earnings of financial institutions when the Federal Reserve System boosts short-term interest rates as the recovery picks up, possibly narrowing the interest-rate spread between short and long-term financial instruments.

Bernstein Research, however, looked at interest-rate risk in the portfolios of some 19 major banks and concluded that "excessive risk is hard to find in the industry. In fact, most companies are not likely to be greatly affected by rising interest rates and some may benefit."

Banks won't entirely be out of the headlines in the next four years. A bipartisan group, the National Commission on Financial Institution Reform, Recovery and Enforcement, is looking into the causes of the thrift crisis. The Clinton administration has started drafting legislation to create a nationwide network of 100 community development banks. Undoubtedly, more banks and thrifts will fail.

At the moment, the news is good. Profits up at Citicorp, Chemical Banking, Chase Manhattan, Wells Fargo - and so on.

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