FDIC: Troubled Bank Loans Hit a Record High

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OVERALL loan quality at American banks is the worst in at least a quarter century, and the quality of loans is deteriorating at the fastest pace ever, according to statistics released this week by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation.

The report highlighted that even as the government and major banks have scrambled to deal with the impaired securities the banks own, the institutions have been plagued by an unprecedented volume of old-fashioned loans going bad.

Of the entire book of loans and leases at all banks — totaling $7.7 trillion at the end of March — 7.75 percent were showing some sign of distress, the F.D.I.C. reported. That was up from 6.9 percent at the end of 2008 and from 4.1 percent a year earlier. It also exceeded the previous high of 7.26 percent set in 1990 and 1991, during the last crisis in American banking.

The F.D.I.C. has been collecting the figures since 1984.

Virtually the only encouraging news in the report was that the banks’ loan portfolio might be worsening more slowly than it was. While the increase of 3.65 percentage points in a year is the highest ever, the quarterly rise was smaller than in the fourth quarter of last year.

The figures, as shown in the accompanying charts, include loans that are more than 30 days behind in payments, a category that will include some loans that catch up and become current. But the percentage that are at least 90 days overdue, or on which the bank has stopped accruing interest or written off, is also higher than at any time since 1984.

As recently as mid-2006, the proportion of troubled loans was at a historic low, and bank regulators were confident that the institutions were well capitalized and could survive any likely economic downturn. They were wrong, it turned out.

The problems stretch across nearly every category of loan, and every size of bank, although the loan problems appear to be somewhat less severe at smaller banks.

Over all, 8.77 percent of real estate loans are troubled, but some types of such loans are in far worse shape than others. Construction and development loans are in the worst shape, with 17.68 percent of loans troubled, and loans secured by farmland are in the best shape, with only 2.98 percent of such loans reported as having problems.

One area that could get much worse is loans on commercial buildings, including stores and offices. Just 4.01 percent of such loans are troubled, less than half the peak of the early 1990s. A large number of those loans will need to be refinanced in the next few years, however, which could be impossible where real estate values have fallen sharply.

Loans to businesses — called commercial and industrial loans — also appear to be doing better than they did in the early 1990s. That could reflect the fact that many such loans are no longer on bank balance sheets, having been sold into the securitization market. Some analysts also fear a wave of defaults on these loans.

The rising stress for some consumers is shown by the fact that banks are taking charge-offs for bad debt at an annual rate of 7.79 percent, and that about one in seven of such loans is classified as troubled.

The F.D.I.C. reports that two-thirds of the banks that paid dividends in 2008 either reduced or eliminated their dividends in the first quarter of this year, a sign of the stress being felt even by banks that have raised new capital. Until the tide of bad loans begins to ebb, banks may be hesitant to take on much additional risk by making new loans to risky borrowers.

Floyd Norris’s blog on finance and economics is at nytimes.com/norris.

By FLOYD NORRIS
Published: May 29, 2009

Source: The New York Times

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