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Obama administration steps up monitoring of banks that miss TARP payments

By Zachary A. Goldfarb
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, December 28, 2010; 12:00 AM

The Obama administration has begun monitoring the high-level board meetings of nearly 20 banks that received emergency taxpayer assistance but repeatedly failed to pay the required dividends, according to Treasury Department officials and documents. And it may soon install new directors on some of their boards.

The moves come as the number of banks that failed to make at least one dividend payment to the government rose to 132 in the last quarter. These "deadbeats," as they are sometimes called, are virtually all community lenders and collectively received billions of dollars in taxpayer assistance.

In addition to those firms, seven others have failed, resulting in the total loss of the government's investment.

The number of banks that have missed six or more dividend payments has reached 19, up from seven during the previous quarter. Under the government's agreement with those firms, the Treasury now has the right to monitor their boards and appoint new members.

Banks are required to make quarterly dividend payments to the Treasury Department in exchange for taking aid from the Troubled Assets Relief Program, which bailed out banks to help them weather the financial crisis of 2008 and 2009.

David Miller, Treasury's chief investment officer for TARP, said the department has already dispatched officials to monitor some of the boards and may begin the board nomination process for others in the beginning of the new year. He declined to be more specific about which banks would be scrutinized and added that no final decisions have been made.

TARP, launched by the George W. Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, has been a source of mostly good news recently.

The largest banks have paid back tens of billions of dollars in aid, with interest. And other developments - such as the initial public offering of General Motors - have further bolstered TARP's return.

For instance, American International Group, which is seeking to pay tens of billions of dollars back to taxpayers, announced Monday that banks had agreed to lend it more than $4 billion, to be used to replace funding from the Federal Reserve. The Fed and the Treasury jointly rescued AIG in September 2008.

The repayment and profits generated by aiding big banks will far overshadow any financial loss among smaller firms. But the issues indicate that the Treasury Department did not properly filter which institutions got access to the financial rescue, analysts said.

When government officials instituted TARP, they vowed to make investments only in strong banks. But a fifth of banks in the program, almost all of them small community lenders, are not paying the government dividends on time.

Linus Wilson, an assistant professor of finance at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette who has analyzed TARP data, said the performance of smaller delinquent banks shows that this process was not executed as well as it should have been.

"It just shows the weakness of the government's selection process and the weakness of the banking sector in general," Wilson said.

Miller contended that the delinquent banks represent just a small fraction of the investments made under TARP. And he pointed out that in many cases banks were prudent in suspending dividends while rebuilding their balance sheets. In some cases, he added, banking regulators wouldn't allow banks to repay the dividends until they were made stronger.

"When I think about the overall program, I clearly recognize the smaller banks are experiencing more stress," Miller said. "But even with expected losses going forward, this will be extremely profitable."

Among the banks that have missed dividends is Seacoast Banking Corp., a community lender in Stuart, Fla. Seacoast has decided to delay TARP payments to finish carrying out a plan to strengthen its financials, said Jean Strickland, president of the bank.

"When we return to profitability it will be prudent of us to restore the dividends," she said.

Another that has missed payments is OneUnited, a Boston bank that caters primarily to African Americans and is at the center of the House's ethics probe of Rep. Maxine Waters (D-Calif.).

Waters has been accused of urging Treasury Department officials to grant OneUnited access to TARP despite having a personal financial connection to the bank.

She has denied wrongdoing. A spokeswoman for OneUnited said the bank has deferred payment of dividends "in order to marshal capital and support funding for its new lending programs," which the bank said was "consistent with safe and sound banking practice."

Dividend repayments may improve in the coming months because small banks have gained access to a separate government small-business lending program that carries more favorable terms, such as a lower interest rate, Wilson said.

"Some banks that would otherwise be TARP deadbeats will move into that non-TARP capital injection program and eventually fall behind on their dividends in that new, non-TARP program," he wrote in an e-mail.

But Treasury officials said the agency will prevent unhealthy banks from gaining access to the new small-business lending initiative.

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