For Texas banks, once-lucrative energy loans pose problems

Traditional Texans wouldn't like to hear it, but one aspect of their economy is beginning to resemble what is happening in the rest of the United States. Texas banking, says market analyst Frank Anderson, is no longer so exceptional.

''It has traditionally been the hottest area as far as profits go,'' comments Mr. Anderson, who follows Texas banks for the Rauscher Pierce Refsnes brokerage firm in Dallas. ''Now, they are acting more like banks across the country.''

Other banks have had a tough time with problem loans in the past few years. Now Texas banks do. It comes from the traditional business that helped make them so rich in the first place - energy loans. When the oil and gas boom started fizzling out in 1981, so did many of the companies the banks lent to.

Other banks have also been adjusting to deregulation. Texas banks, although still under a state regulatory system that is ''antediluvian,'' in the words of one analyst in New York, is trying its best to deal with deregulation, too.

Last year, 48 percent of the loans written off by the 12 major Texas bank holding corporations were energy-related, according to Sandy Flannigan, a bank analyst with Paine Webber Inc. in Houston. Energy loans are still ''a widespread problem,'' she says. Only two of the 12 holding companies reported 1983 earnings above those for 1982.

This quarter's results are rolling in. They are an improvement over the previous quarter, but for most banks they still show losses compared with this time last year. InterFirst Corporation, which lost $172 million last year and is also the largest of the Texas bank companies, reported first-quarter earnings down 74 percent from the year before. ''This year may be a little better (for Texas banks) than last year,'' says Lawrence Cohn at Dean Witter Reynolds, ''but it's still not going to be a particularly good year.''

For the banks that played the last two years conservatively, the woes of InterFirst have turned into blessings.

''If they've got their best people working on cleaning up bad loans, that means they are not out there marketing,'' reasons William Gibson, senior vice-president and economist at RepublicBank Corporation, the state's second-largest bank holding company. Mr. Gibson says Republic has taken advantage of this, spending the last two years building market share. Republic's net income dropped 9.8 percent in 1983 - a moderate downturn compared with some of the other Texas banks.

Southwest Bancshares Inc., in Houston, is another ''conservative'' bank. Yet earnings still plunged 41 percent last year. Charles McMahen, president of Southwest, explains that ''no one main chunk'' was responsible for the downturn; rather, it was ''a series of items that came together.'' One of those was a particular Southwest bank which caused problems for the holding company, but ''the peso devaluation, the national recession, and the energy sector did create a broad-based economic downturn that was clearly reflected in the loan portfolio ,'' the executive adds.

Mr. McMahen also says that deregulation is raising a bit of havoc at the bank. New products being offered cost the bank more, slimming profit margins.

''Many of the products require a great deal of capital commitment,'' he says, which is one reason Southwest is following the rest of Texas banking to the merger rodeo. This year, it will merge with Mercantile Texas, a Dallas-based bank holding company.

The other reason behind the merger, says McMahen, is to deal with the coming ''geographic'' part of deregulation. ''Size is important,'' he points out, should Southwest ever move across state lines or need to protect itself from takeover by banks outside the state - especially aggressive New York banks.

After last year's flurry of major Texas bank mergers, analysts don't expect to see many more soon. (The exception may be Texas Commerce Bancshares, which courted, and was rebuffed by, a merger prospect last year. It has also made out better, profit-wise, than most of its banking neighbors.)

''Texas Commerce aside, most banks have enough problems of their own that there is not any particular reason to be aggressive in looking for acquisitions, '' says James Carter, a bank analyst at Merrill Lynch. ''On a longer-term perspective, however, there's no question we'll see further consolidation.''

Conservatively managed or not, Texas banks seem to be taking similar strategies to improve earnings. First, of course, they are trying to collect and reschedule loans. They are increasing service charges and building reliable cash generators like credit-card and data-base services. Cutting costs has been a priority, too. Non-interest expenses rose 12 percent in 1983, compared with 20 percent in 1982.

The inherent inefficiency of Texas banking, however, prohibits much more significant cost improvement, says Mr. Cohn at Dean Witter. Texas is a unit banking state. Banks are not allowed to have branches here, so they form holding companies. The banks owned by the holding company remain relatively independent, with their own personnel and cost structures, making it difficult to impose corporate-wide cost controls. And, Cohn says, ''there are substantial expenses associated with collecting on bad loans . . . if you foreclose on a rig, someone has to maintain it.''

Perhaps a more meaningful strategy has been for the commercially oriented banks to try their hand at consumer banking - the banking buzzword that simply means going after the individual. Mid-size businesses are also the target.

''As long as the energy portion of the economy was growing as strongly as it was, Texas banks didn't have to bother with small corporate borrowers. Now the bloom is off that rose, they are groping around looking for someplace else,'' Cohn says.

While the new interest in the mid-size corporation has made that ''someplace else'' competitive too, at least it is a growth market. Outside of energy, the rest of the Texas economy appears quite strong - especially the high-technology business.

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