Those of us who write about the financial system, especially when we write about banks and savings and loan institutions, try to keep things in perspective. Most banks are sound; a majority of S&Ls are making money and are being helped by the recent decline in interest rates.
But many banks and S&Ls are not in good shape. And every time I write about signs of trouble, I hear from citizens worried about their deposits, some of which represent lifelong savings.
They have a right to worry. Former Securities and Exchange Commissioner Bevis Longstreth Wednesday told a congressional subcommittee that the situation for federally insured commercial banks "is one of progressive fragility." Sen. Gary Hart (D-Colo.), in a recent letter to Federal Reserve Chairman Paul A. Volcker, spoke of the "continuing troubles in the banking industry" and added: "There is something amiss in the financial state of the United States." Longstreth noted that of the 14,700 commercial banks, 950 are on the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s "problem list." That is about 150 percent greater than a previous peak of 385 in 1976. Moreover, in the past four years, bank failures involved losses exceeding $4 billion, compared with losses of $500 million in all of the 47 prior years going back to 1933.
On Friday, May 30, seven banks in four states went belly-up, a record for a single day's failures since the Great Depression. In all cases, these failures reflected what officials say was primarily a combination of bad management and/or imprudent loan decisions and, secondarily, weaknesses in the farm economy. At the present rate, there could be 100 bank failures this year.
On a recent PBS-TV "Washington Week in Review" panel, after I outlined some of these problems among banks and S&Ls, my colleague Charles Corddry of the Baltimore Sun asked, "Are you trying to scare us to death?" I responded that I was doing my best not to scare anyone. But as journalists, we have a responsibility to help keep the public informed. The Washington Post financial staff, for example, performed a great service recently by publishing data, obtained through Freedom of Information procedures, that shows the profitability-loss score for S&Ls in this area.
Citizens have a right to know how safe their savings, checking and other deposits are, but the amount of information usually available to them is limited.
The FDIC and the Comptroller of the Currency admit that they keep a "problem list" of commercial banks, and former FDIC chairman William Isaacs released the 950 number. But these agencies certainly don't reveal anything about an individual bank -- until it goes broke. The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., which insures some 3,150 thrifts, used to keep a similar problem list of S&Ls with a net worth of less than 2 percent. But when the number got up to about 265, out of 4,000 thrifts existing in 1981, the FSLIC quit publishing the total.
Now, the FSLIC won't even admit that it keeps a problem list for internal purposes. If it did, the number might be three times as large as it was in 1981, even though about 850 S&Ls have disappeared, or been merged out of existence, since then. When asked, an FSLIC spokesman would say only that the agency "has sufficient internal material to keep track of all institutions under our regulatory purview."
Presumably this FSLIC "internal material" is based on a realistic "generally accepted" valuation of S&L assets, rather than the "regulatory accounting" fictions used publicly to make the S&Ls appear to be in better health than they actually are.
New York economist Henry Kaufman doesn't mince words about the negligence of banks and S&Ls in protecting the savings put in their charge by a trusting public. This past week, he came up with a good idea for a new credit rating system for financial institutions. A bank or S&L with a declining rating would get six months to shape up. If it didn't, the rating would be made public. Kaufman thinks that prospect would concentrate the minds of go-go managers who play fast and loose with the public's money and now are secure in a deregulated system in the realization that the government insurance program will bail them out.
Finally, something must be done to upgrade the numbers and quality of examiners employed by the supervisory agencies, at the state and federal levels. FSLIC examiners earn an average of $24,800 a year, or $13,000 less than those working for the Federal Reserve and $8,000 less than those on the FDIC payroll. In a world where regulation is a bad word and deregulation has had magic appeal, the regulators have been given short shrift. The public suffers the consequences. In the State of Maryland, which saw its privately insured savings system collapse last month, the entry salary for state regulators is less than $12,500 a year, or less than a copy girl or boy makes at The Washington Post. The average pay, according to Maryland state Sen. Howard Denis, is only about $15,000. As Denis says, the resultant high turnover of regulatory personnel, typical of the federal system as well, could be the Achilles' heel of the financial system.