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Local banks selling fewer troubled loans

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Washington area banks sold fewer troubled loans in the first nine months of the year, despite a continued inflow of distressed assets, according to data from Charlottesville-based research firm SNL Financial.

The 43 local banks the firm reviewed disposed of a total of $228 million in nonaccrual loans — those 90 days past due — through the end of September, leaving $1.5 billion in troubled assets sitting on their books. A year earlier, those same institutions traded $517 million in problem loans, with a total $1.6 billion in bad debt remaining.

Keep in mind that the numbers are skewed because of the inclusion of Capital One Financial Corp. The McLean-based behemoth accounts for more than 75 percent of all the nonaccrual loans and more than 90 percent of the asset sales in the area for both years.

Excluding Capital One, local sales of troubled assets declined by roughly 12 percent to $12.4 million, while the universe of distressed debt grew about 8 percent to $360.6 million at the end of September.

Some area banks no longer may feel an urgency to off-load problem loans as asset values in the Washington area have largely stabilized, said David G. Danielson, president of Danielson Associates, a banking consultant firm in Bethesda.

“Asset values, in some cases, have stabilized at a level that’s still below what they were written out to on the banks’ books,” he said. “So banks are still reluctant to sell them and take the hit to capital, but they feel much better, particularly in the Washington area, about their ability to work out [distressed loans] with little or no loss.”

Banking consultant Bert Ely agreed that more banks may be entertaining loan modification under the assumption that they will take less of a loss than if they sell at the bottom of the market.

“They think prices are going to go up and there will be a recovery in values,” he said. “The thing about that is it’s a judgment call, and bankers don’t always get it right.”

Holding on to problem loans as the volume continues to rise seems counterintuitive. But many local banks have stashed away enough cash in reserves to offset loan losses. The current volume of troubled loans, though edging up, remains much lower than in 2009 at the height of the banking crisis.

A majority of area banks, having logged record profits this year, are healthy enough to withstand an uptick in problem loans and hold off on asset sales. Others, however, may lack the financial capacity to clean up their balance sheet.

“If a bank is having trouble, they will hold off on selling assets because that makes them recognize a loss,” Ely said. “And many times the loss is more than what they reserved for, and so they’ll drag their feet.”

Meanwhile, there were some significant jumps in noncurrent loans this year.

The Industrial Bank of the District, for instance, logged a 34 percent year-over-year increase to $16.1 million in problem loans. Alliance Bank nearly tripled its portfolio of nonaccrual loans to $10 million through the first nine months of the year. However, the Chantilly-based bank was among the most active sellers this year, clearing $725,000 in problem loans off of its books.

There were a number of banks that bucked the prevailing trend and cleared a higher percentage of problem loans off of their books this year.

Cardinal Bank of Tysons Corner, for example, traded $3.5 million in distressed assets through the end of the third quarter, a 15.5 percent increase over the prior year. Herndon-based MainStreet Bank sold a little over $1 million in troubled loans, though its total nonaccrual loans shot up to $4.9 million at the end of September.

“Some banks, particularly if they’ve been in a turnaround mode, want to clear the debt and eliminate the distraction that a lot of problem assets cause,” Ely said.

A few banks have experienced an overall drop in distressed assets. Vienna-based Business Bank, for instance, whittled its noncurrent loans down from $1.8 million at the end of September 2010 to $576,000 this year. The bank sold $533,000 in problem loans this year, compared to $1 million through the end of September.

Virginia Heritage of Fairfax also recorded a decline in total nonaccrual loans, from $1.2 million through September 2010 to $435,000 for the same period this year. Distressed assets at WashingtonFirst Bank dwindled from $7.5 million at the end of the third quarter of 2010 to $3.5 million at the end of September 2011.

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