No one would welcome falling interest rates more than the District's savings institutions, which, for the most part, have continued to show operating losses this year.
According to Federal Home Loan Bank Board statistics released last week for selected area savings and loan associations and savings banks, seven thrifts in the nation's capital lost $10.6 million in the first two quarters of 1984. During the same period, seven Virginia institutions reported profits of $5.8 million, while eight federally insured Maryland S&Ls had net income of $2.5 million, resulting in a net loss for those federally insured institutions of $2.3 million.
Meanwhile, the Maryland Savings Share Insurance Corp., which insures state savings institutions, reports that its 102 members had net income of $63.9 million during the first half of 1984, compared with $38.8 million during the same period in 1983, or a gain of 64 percent.
The overall loss experienced by 22 selected federally insured savings institutions in the Bank Board study sets metropolitan Washington apart from the rest of the country's 3,165 savings and loans: Collectively, federally insured thrifts earned just over $1 billion during the first half of 1984, according to the Bank Board data, a 7 percent decrease from the same period in 1983.
According to the Bank Board, during the first quarter of this year, 38 percent of U.S. thrifts were operating in the red; in metropolitan Washington, the number was 64 percent. The second quarter witnessed some improvement both nationally and locally. Across the country, the percentage of institutions losing money dropped to 24 percent, while in the Washington area, the figure was 36 percent.
Bank Board figures show that nationwide, return on assets for the first two quarters averaged 0.24 percent, or 24 cents profit for every $100 in assets. In contrast, institutions in this area lost three cents for every $100 in assets. The ratio of reserves (or net worth) to insured liabilities (or deposits) was 3.13 percent in greater Washington, compared with 4.1 percent across the country.
Despite the losses, none of the troubled local institutions appear to have any sizable amount of uninsured deposits that would put depositors at risk. Deposits of up to $100,000 are protected by federal insurance in case of failure.
Because these losses pale in comparison with the hemorrhage of more than $100 million suffered locally in 1981 and 1982, and because interest rates are coming down, there is no air of crisis in the industry or among its regulators.
On paper, one of the District's thrifts is insolvent and two others could reach that stage in nine to 18 months if their losses continue at the pace set during the first half. But as long as their difficulties remain restricted to so-called point-spread problems, none appear to be candidates for immediate mergers, according to industry sources, who say the Bank Board has higher priorities.
Point-spread problems occur when the difference between what an S&L pays for money, in the form of interest on savings accounts or other funds, and what it receives on its mortgage loans and other investments, is too little to allow it to make a profit after expenses. Point-spread problems are more common now because deregulation and competition have forced institutions to pay higher rates on deposits at a time when they are still saddled with many older fixed-rate loans yielding much less.
During the 1981-82 interest rate crisis, when soaring rates caused one thrift in 10 to fail, legislators and regulators introduced a series of "creative" accounting practices to prop up ailing thrifts with point-spread problems until rates subsided. Moreover, savings institutions were given new ways to make money. Adjustable-rate mortgages, which shifted the risk on interest rates from the lender to the borrower, also caught on, providing another safety valve.
Consequently, the Bank Board has turned its attention away from point-spread difficulties to problems it considers more pressing, such as disciplining S&Ls with such problems as bad assets, brokered funds and, most recently, inordinate deposit growth without adequate capital.
That may explain the failure of regulators to act in the case of Capital City Federal Savings, a District savings and loan that had a negative net worth of almost $20 million at the end of June, using the Bank Board's measurements. (Net worth is the difference between assets and liabilities; in this case Capital City owes depositors more than the value of its loans and other investments.) If Capital City were a stock corporation, rather than a mutual institution, its negative net worth would be measured by a different set of accounting principles that would make it much higher.
Arthur Weiss, chairman of Southmark Holding Co., a Dallas real estate company, estimates the figure would be closer to $70 million. And yet, he said in an interview, he has waited at least six months for the Bank Board to act on his application to buy Capital City, a move that might help restore the S&L's health.
Weiss thought he had a deal with the agency to purchase Capital City, along with two other troubled institutions, Family Savings and Loan Association in Northern Virginia and Sun Federal Savings in Tallahassee, Fla., at a cost of tens of millions of dollars. (Weiss asked that the actual figures be kept secret for competitive reasons.) The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., which insures S&Ls, was to put up a slightly lesser amount of money as well as assume all losses generated by the three thrifts after May 31.
Southmark, which already owns an S&L in Houston, wanted to acquire the thrifts in Virginia and Florida as a first step in expanding operations throughout those states. In exchange for that opportunity, Weiss said, it also agreed to purchase Capital City, which it did not want to buy.
Since Weiss made the offer, however, Sun Federal has lost virtually all its $6 million in capital. As a result, Weiss believes the deal should be renegotiated for more federal money or for a different package of distressed institutions.
If negotiations are reopened, Weiss would prefer a Maryland thrift instead of Capital City. "Let's face it, D.C. is a dog," he said. "It's not a commercial business area, and it has no savings to speak of."
Capital City President James Schwartz acknowledged the merger attempts, but said his S&L will survive, merger or not. Moreover, he said, losses this year are half what they were a year ago when several builders financed by the savings and loan went bankrupt. Capital City has cut expenses and has diversified into home equity and consumer loans and small joint ventures. In the first half of this year, the S&L made residential loans totaling $47 million, compared with $9 million in all of 1983. Deposits are up by $40 million. "And our liquidity is high," Schwartz said.
Industry analysts say liquidity -- the ability to convert assets to cash as needed to meet obligations -- is the reason Bank Board regulators have been willing to let Capital and other troubled institutions continue to operate while the regulators tackle other problems.
At Capital City, the reserve ratio of capital to insured deposits is negative 5.3 percent. In contrast, the reserve ratio required by the Bank Board is 3 percent. In past years, if an institution slipped below 2 percent, a merger partner was usually sought.
But in 1984, an S&L economist said, a reserve ratio such as the District's average of 1.96 percent is not considered bad. The economist estimated as many as 100 S&Ls nationwide may be technically insolvent with negative net worth but are allowed to continue operations while Bank Board regulators concentrate on minimizing losses from bad loans. Bad loans pose a more serious immediate threat because they can force institutions to run out of operating capital, resulting in failures that can drain the federal insurance fund.
Another big loser in the District this year is National Permanent Bank, whose first-half losses totaled $6.1 million. Clayton Keel, National Permanent's senior executive vice president for finance, reports that third-quarter losses were somewhat reduced, and he expects the fourth quarter to show an improvement, although the savings bank will continue to operate in the red.
Keel blamed first-quarter losses on expenses associated with absorbing the failing Eastern Liberty savings and loan last year. Moreover, National Permanent elected to take some loan losses by selling off bad assets. But most of all he cited a problem faced by other Washington S&Ls -- competition for loan customers and depositors. According to Keel, it forces institutions to make loans at rates that translate into yields lower than those demanded by investors. Consequently, S&Ls find it difficult to sell loans in the secondary market.
The District's big winner in dollar terms was Washington Federal Savings & Loan Association. William Sinclair, who became president last January, immediately embarked on cost cutting to reduce overhead and closed four unprofitable branches. The S&L also entered a joint venture with Columbia First Federal Savings & Loan Association, to establish First Washington Mortgage Corp. in four states. Second-quarter profits were trimmed by the sale of nonproducing assets, but the third quarter was healthy and the fourth is booming, Sinclair said.
In the suburbs, the best records belong to stock associations, which may be due to their ability to raise capital by selling stock or to the fact that, as young associations, they have few low-yield mortgages -- or both. Of the 102 state-insured S&Ls in Maryland, 25 are stock corporations, up six from last year. Among federally insured S&Ls, conversion from mutual to stock form also is the trend.
The highest return on assets -- 1.85 percent -- was generated by Dominion Federal Savings & Loan Association in McLean. In the past two years, Dominion's deposits have increased by 468 percent to $952 million, by far the largest increase of any S&L in the area. Assets, now at $980 million, have risen just as significantly. Third-quarter profits were around $5 million. Chairman William Walde claims to have achieved those results without acquisitions or creative accounting. He noted that Dominion has no brokered funds, almost no uninsured accounts and a healthy 2.9 percent reserve ratio.
The key, according to Walde, is "rolling up your sleeves and going to it." Dominion is getting into commercial real estate development, leasing, consumer finance, retail banking and mortgage banking. "We're becoming more of a merchant banker," he said.
Another winner on the list is Standard Federal Savings of Gaithersburg, which has become a major mortgage banker in addition to handling a lot of commercial real estate loans and some joint ventures and syndication. Deposits are up 273 percent since 1982, but the reserve ratio has declined to 1.5 percent.
Federal Bank Board Chairman Edwin J. Gray expressed concern recently about rapidly growing S&Ls with too little capital. But Standard's president, Marvin Lang, said Bank Board regulators are not worried about his association because it has servicing rights that could easily be converted into $60 million in cash if more capital were required. Servicing rights refer to the future profits that an institution can expect to get from servicing a loan, or collecting monthly payments from the borrower, after the loan itself has been sold to a third party. These future profits are hidden assets that are not carried on the balance sheet.