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As savings grow and loans stagnate, community banks left holding cash

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Having money in the bank may not be all it’s cracked up to be — at least not for some local banks.

Deposits at the largest Washington-area community banks climbed in the first six months of this year, outpacing national deposit growth and demand for loans.

But as deposits continue to grow at double-digit rates, bank executives say it has become increasingly difficult to find profitable uses for incoming money, particularly at a time when many Americans are hesitant to take on new loans at the terms available.

As a result, competition is stiff among institutions to make what loans are possible — a key source of revenue for banks.

“Loans are even more competitive than deposits right now,” said Robert Miller, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of Middleburg Bank. “There’s a lot of trying to take away loan business from other banks by offering lower rates. Competition is fierce.”

If banks can’t attract enough borrowers, they often invest deposits in municipal bonds or securities, which typically have lower yields than loans.

“Deposits don’t have the value they would in a higher-rate environment,” said P. Carter Bundy, an analyst for Stifel Nicolaus. “Banks are looking for loan growth anywhere they can find it right now.”

Although some consumers are trying to take advantage of historically low interest rates, many banks say demand has not kept up with the rapid growth in deposits.

“Part of the struggle is that it’s hard to convince someone to take out a loan if they’re feeling uncertain about the economy,” Miller said. “We certainly are always looking for more loans — that’s what drives our revenue and our profits.”

Bundy added that some area banks — namely Eagle Bank, where deposits grew 29 percent and loans rose 25 percent over the last year, and Cardinal Bank — have seen continued growth in commercial, mortgage and automobile loans.

“It’s really on a case-by-case basis, though,” Bundy said. “There are other banks saying, ‘Oh, we just have too many deposits. What can we do with our excess liquidity?’ ”

At Sandy Spring Bank in Olney, excess deposits are being invested in municipal bonds and securities.

“We’ve been trying to convert more of our deposits into loans,” said Joseph O’Brien, Jr., an executive vice president at the bank. “It’s a challenge across the industry.”

Some local banks say they try to steer customers away from depositing money into savings and checking accounts and toward higher-rate CDs and money markets if it seems to make sense for them.

“The thing is, it’s not as simple as taking deposits and making loans,” said Bernard Clineburg, chairman and chief executive of Cardinal Bank. “It’s about maximizing profits for your shareholders and taking care of your customers.”

At M&T Bank’s Washington offices, extra deposits are waiting on the sidelines. Stephen Heine, the Washington market manager for the bank, said M&T still has its sights set on funneling deposits into new loans.

“The deposits sit on our balance sheet and we’ll lend them when it’s appropriate,” Heine said. “We’re a community bank. We’re very meat and potatoes — we take in deposits and we make loans.”

© The Washington Post Company