Toxic assets

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Source: Toxic Loans Topping 5% May Push 150 Banks to Point of No Return Aug. 14, 2009, Bloomberg

"More than 150 publicly traded U.S. lenders own nonperforming loans that equal 5 percent or more of their holdings, a level that former regulators say can wipe out a bank’s equity and threaten its survival.

The number of banks exceeding the threshold more than doubled in the year through June, according to data compiled by Bloomberg, as real estate and credit-card defaults surged. Almost 300 reported 3 percent or more of their loans were nonperforming, a term for commercial and consumer debt that has stopped collecting interest or will no longer be paid in full.

The biggest banks with nonperforming loans of at least 5 percent include Wisconsin’s Marshall & Ilsley Corp. and Georgia’s Synovus Financial Corp., according to Bloomberg data. Among those exceeding 10 percent, the biggest in the 50 U.S. states was Michigan’s Flagstar Bancorp. All said in second- quarter filings they’re “well-capitalized” by regulatory standards, which means they’re considered financially sound.

“At a 3 percent level, I’d be concerned that there’s some underlying issue, and if they’re at 5 percent, chances are regulators have them classified as being in unsafe and unsound condition,” said Walter Mix, former commissioner of the California Department of Financial Institutions, and now a managing director of consulting firm LECG in Los Angeles. He wasn’t commenting on any specific banks.

Missed payments by consumers, builders and small businesses pushed 72 lenders into failure this year, the most since 1992. More collapses may lie ahead as the recession causes increased defaults and swells the confidential U.S. list of “problem banks,” which stood at 305 in the first quarter.

Cash Drain

Nonperforming loans can eat into a company’s earnings and deplete cash, leaving banks below the minimum capital levels required by regulators. Three lenders with nonaccruing ratios of at least 6.2 percent as of March were closed last week. In addition, Chicago-based Corus Bankshares Inc., Austin-based Guaranty Financial Group Inc. and Colonial BancGroup Inc. in Montgomery, Alabama, each with ratios of at least 6.5 percent, said in the past month that they expect to be shut.

“This is a fairly widespread issue for the larger community banks and some regional banks across the country,” said Mix of LECG, where William Isaac, former head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is chairman of the global financial services unit.

Ratios above 5 percent don’t always lead to failures because banks keep capital cushions and set aside reserves to absorb bad loans. Banks with higher ratios of equity to total assets can better withstand such losses, said Jim Barth, a former chief economist at the Office of Thrift Supervision. Marshall & Ilsley and Synovus said they’ve been getting bad loans off their books by selling them.

Exclusions

Bloomberg’s list was compiled by screening U.S. banks for nonperforming loans of 5 percent or more, and then ranked by assets. The list excluded U.S. territories and lenders that have already failed. Also left out were the 19 lenders that underwent the Treasury’s stress tests in May; they were deemed “too big to fail” and told by regulators that government capital was available to keep them in business.

Excluding the stress-test list, banks with nonperformers above 5 percent had combined deposits of $193 billion, according to Bloomberg data. That’s almost 15 times the size of the FDIC’s deposit insurance fund at the end of the first quarter.

About 2.6 percent of the $7.74 trillion in bank loans outstanding in the U.S. at the end of March were nonaccruing, the highest in 17 years, according to the most recent data from the FDIC. Nonaccrual loans peaked at 3.27 percent in the second quarter of 1991, during the savings and loan crisis, and averaged 1.54 percent over the past 25 years.

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