Tuesday, August 23, 2011

FDIC Says 'Problem Banks' Declining; Total Still Dreadful

Since the creation of the FDIC in 1933, there have been only 12 years in which 100 banks failed in a single year. The last two were among them.

Though bank failures easily eclipsed 100 in each of the last two years, the trouble is not yet behind us. With 68 so far in 2011, we are on pace for a third consecutive year of 100 closures.

A total of 140 banks were shuttered in 2009, and 157 institutions failed in 2010.

To provide some perspective, a mere three U.S. banks failed in 2007 and just 25 U.S. banks were closed in 2008, which was more than in the previous five years combined.

Looking at FDIC data can reveal the magnitude of the current problem, and just how much more fallout may be yet to come.

At the end of the first quarter last year, the number of lenders on the FDIC's "problem banks list" had climbed to 775, the highest level since 1992.

However, today we were told that 865 banks were on the "problem list" in the second quarter, which was actually an improvement from the first quarter, when 888 made this sorry list.

The decline was the first since the third quarter of 2006. Clearly, U.S. banking has been in a long pattern of instability and failure.

The report is being heralded as good news due to the decline in "problem" banks.

But consider the facts; there were 775 banks on the list in the first quarter of last year, the highest since 1992. That number has since increased by 90, and this is somehow being spun as a good thing?

The banks on the list are considered the most likely to fail. However, their names are never made public for fear of creating a run on those banks.

Bank failures over the previous two years pushed the number of FDIC institutions to below 8,000 for the first time in the agency's 76-year history. Two decades ago, the FDIC insured more than 16,000 institutions nationwide.

The problem is that many of these banks are already under-capitalized, which is the reason they are failing.

FDIC officials say the banking industry continues to struggle with flat growth in loans, which is how they make their money. Relatively few businesses or individuals are seeking loans in this environment, and fewer still even qualify.

The government changed accounting rules for banks during the financial crisis so that they no longer have to mark foreclosed properties to market values. Banks have been allowed to "extend and pretend," as they wait for the housing market to recover.

However, it is now evident that any recovery will take many years.

If the banks were compelled to mark these "assets" — which could be more accurately described as liabilities — to current market values, even more institutions would be revealed as bankrupt.

While the FDIC may view the decline in "problem banks" as good news and a step forward, the predicament has only been upgraded from "miserable" to "horrible."

The reality is that roughly 11.5 percent of all federally insured banks are now considered at risk for failing, and that is an absolutely overwhelming number.

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