Like pesky dandelions, problem-ridden savings and loans continue to pop up across the financial services landscape. And while difficulties at financial institutions in economically depressed regions, such as the Southwest and the farm belt, have attracted far more attention, lingering industry problems and risky investments are catching up with other thrifts, some of them in areas with healthy economies.

In Baltimore Federal Financial, for instance, federal regulators recently discovered that another dandelion had sprouted. BFF announced on Feb. 19 that it had lost $120 million last year. And with its balance sheet showing a negative net worth -- a condition in which liabilities exceed assets -- BFF two weeks ago turned to federal regulators for help in finding a buyer.

Even if a buyer is found, completing the deal could require "a combination of financial assistance and forbearance" from federal regulators, concedes Rebecca Vail, vice president and director of corporate communications at the Federal Home Loan Bank of Atlanta.

Neither the underlying factors in the loss reported by BFF -- after writing off $100 million in bad loans -- nor its request for federal assistance in finding a buyer are unique. Thrifts with heavy investments in real estate ventures turned sour generally reported lower earnings last year. Consider, too, that BFF isn't the only S&L that's seeking a buyer to raise badly needed capital.

Unlike many of the nation's problem S&Ls, however, BFF's problems apparently aren't rooted in fraud and high-flyer risks. A more traditional thrift, the 103-year-old S&L operates what industry experts describe as an excellent branch network in a strong consumer and real estate market. With assets of $2 billion and deposits of $1.3 billion, it is Baltimore's largest S&L and the second largest in Maryland.

But like the high flyers and others in the industry that were seeking quick fixes to the earnings crunch of the early 1980s, BFF ventured into Texas -- then considered a safe haven for real estate loans. That decision, as it turned out, was a costly mistake and the beginning of BFF's problems. A "good portion" of BFF's loan loss reserve is tied to its Texas loans, according to Dennis Finnegan, the S&L's executive vice president.

"Certainly when {the investment decisions} were made, they were valid decisions," Finnegan said in a recent interview. "Texas in the early 1980s was a wonderful market and seemed like such a nice place to be."

So it seemed to the scores of S&L executives who strayed too far from markets with which they were familiar. They bet the house -- and lost -- on the boom that went bust when sharply declining oil prices dragged down the economy in the Southwest.

Thrifts desperately needed relief from interest-rate pressures of the early '80s. As interest rates spiraled, thrifts found themselves stuck with fixed-rate, low-yield mortgages. To compete for deposits with other financial institutions, thrifts were forced to pay interest rates almost twice as high as their yields on mortgage loans.

To help relieve the pressure, federal regulators allowed them to sell off low-yield mortgages at a loss. But rather than showing losses on their income statements, thrifts were allowed to defer them over the life of the loans. "We were encouraged to take advantage of this portfolio strategy," Finnegan noted. "Obviously, how you deployed the money from those {loan} sales was up to the individual association."

Hindsight is a harsh judge, but that apparently was the fatal flaw in the regulators' portfolio strategy. Before thrifts were able to capitalize on their new high-yield investments, interest rates fell sharply lower, creating another disastrous mismatch in funds.

In the meantime, BFF's acquisition of another thrift in the early 1980s only compounded its earnings problems.

Exactly when federal regulators became aware of substantial deterioration in BFF's net worth isn't clear. Finnegan denies that the thrift was ever put on a trouble list, and officials at the Federal Home Loan Bank in Atlanta aren't sure when BFF's capital reached the danger level. Bells should have gone off in Atlanta, however, when BFF sought a merger with Home Shopping Network last year to pump badly needed capital into the thrift. When the two parties failed to consummate that improbable marriage, BFF embarked on a search for another buyer as losses mounted.

If the search for capital didn't provide a clue to BFF's dwindling net worth, then other tell-tale signs should have. According to a rating of thrift institutions by IDC Financial Publishing Inc., published quarterly by The Baltimore Sun, BFF's net worth was less than the required 3 percent of assets at least three years ago. Its net income as a percent of assets in 1985 was a minus .50 and the rating for each quarter of that year was below average. According to IDC's most recent ratings published in The Sun last October, BFF's net worth was still below the required 3 percent level and its ratings in each of the previous four quarters were in ranges that warranted "financial concern."

Little wonder then that The Sun in a recent editorial asserted that BFF's "crumbling condition has been known for several years." The fact that the condition was allowed to continue for as long as it did suggests that other dandelions have germinated in the environment in which BFF's problems grew.