Another bank went belly-up last week, a half-billion-dollar one in New Jersey. Three banks failed the week before, another the week before that, two more the first week of the month.
Seven for September, eight during August, three in July, 10 in June, banks have been dying so regularly that their obits aren't even news any more.
Since January, 61 U.S. banks, plus 17 savings and loan associations, have gone out of business.
Already this year more banks have failed than in any year since the end of the Great Depression.
The 61 failures of 1934 were equaled on Friday when Orange Savings Bank in New Jersey had to be taken over by Hudson City Savings Bank. And we still have three months to go in 1984. Unless the bank failure rate is deterred by falling interest rates, we could equal the 72 failures of 1936 and 1939 by election day. By New Year's Eve, even the all-time record of 84 failures in 1937 could fall.
And the toll doesn't count the two worst disasters in the bank and savings business.
Continental Illinois National Bank in Chicago is a failed institution by the standards of most any banker, but isn't counted among the official casualties. Only a massive federal bailout kept Continental from falling over and setting off a string of domino-effect disasters by other banks. Continental was resurrected before it could fail.
Nor is Financial Corp. of America, the nation's biggest, sickest savings and loan, counted as a failure; because Uncle Sam's behind-the-scenes support prevents it from crumbling, FCA is still officially unfailed.
Pretending neither Continental nor FCA is a failure is a fantasy only federal regulators can believe in. But it is appropriate that the people who gave us "nonbank banks" should create "nonfailed failures."
Keeping an honest count of the fading pulse of their industries ought to be easy enough. But the Federal Home Loan Bank Board doesn't count failures of savings and loans the way the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. counts bank failures.
The Official Bank Board Body Count is only three. The 14 savings and loans that were taken over by other institutions with cash help from the feds are "default prevention actions" and therefore nonfailed failures. The FDIC does not play that game.
The banking regulators not only have trouble facing up to how sick their industry is, but also serious difficulty diagnosing its ailments and prescribing therapy.
For months, the regulators have been warning of a dread disease called "brokered deposits." When banks turn to professional deposit-finders to bring in cash, they often grow too fast and get in trouble, the regulators warned. Of the 45 banks that failed last year, 29 had brokered deposits, as did four of the six S&Ls that were liquidated during the year.
The cure, the FDIC and FSLIC decided last March, was to limit federal deposit insurance to the first $100,000 brought in by any broker. Without insurance, no one would want brokered deposits, excessive growth would be eliminated and the depositors would sleep "Oh, woe, we're in trouble," cried the regulators . . . better, the regulators claimed.
That argument was immediately challenged in court, and in June the brokered deposit rules were thrown out by a federal judge.
"Oh, woe, we're in trouble," cried the regulators.
"Oh no you're not," say congressional investigators who took a closer look at brokered funds.
Their report, to be issued today, says brokered deposits are not that much of a factor in failures and eliminating them isn't the cure.
The study by the House Commerce Consumer and Monetary Affairs subcommittee says brokered funds are just a symptom of the illness of rapid growth. "Most problem institutions that sought to expand rapidly found other sources of deposit growth to be readily available," the study concludes. "There is neither concrete evidence nor a coherent logical argument that insured deposit brokerage is inherently harmful."
That conclusion is something of a surprise, because the subcommittee chaired by Rep. "Oh, no you're not," say congressional investigators. Doug Barnard (D-Ga.) was among the first to point out large deposits of brokered funds in failed banks.
But finding brokered deposits in a dead bank's vault doesn't mean they were the cause of death. If there is any cause-and-effect relationship, the subcommittee report implies, it is between the failure of financial regulation and the failure of financial institutions.
The report takes Federal Home Loan Bank Board Chairman Edwin Gray to task for telling what Gray called "horror stories" about10 S&Ls that failed because of brokered deposits. "Most of the 10 cases cited by the FHLBB involved flagrant violations of regulations and several appeared to involve violations of law. These were not merely cases of rapid growth and poor business judgment."
The committee calls on regulators to "strengthen their direct supervisory control over problem institutions . . . tighten bank and thrift capital standards, especially at savings and loan associations . . . increase both the detail and timeliness of public reporting . . . and . . . pursue firm and uncompromising enforcement of agency regulations at all institutions."
Prescriptions for tighter regulation are not popular in Washington these days, but that recommendation is impossible to challenge when banks and savings and loans are failing at Depression rates.
Perhaps bank deaths are not mourned more sorrowfully in Washington because the nearest failures have occurred hundreds of miles away, in New Jersey and West Virginia. But you can make a pretty good case that the most serious failures in banking this year have happened right here. Continental Illinois and Financial Corp. of America may not be the biggest failures in their business -- the biggest failures are the federal agencies that are supposed to be keeping our banks healthy and our savings safe.