The financial disaster that swept through many Washington area banks and savings and loans in the first quarter of 1990 is likely to be repeated, according to local bank analysts who say troubles in the real estate business will continue to hit financial institutions hard in the second quarter.
The quarter, which ended Friday, will likely bring more losses, more foreclosures, more provisions against possible loan defaults and more frustrated bankers, the analysts said.
"Anybody that has a heavy real estate exposure has the potential for more problems," said Elisabeth Albert Hayes of Johnston Lemon & Co.
The downturn in bank and thrift profits that seemingly came out of nowhere in the first quarter hit nearly every financial institution in town, from the most conservative, such as Riggs Financial Corp., to the high fliers, such as Trustbank Savings. The million-dollar declines in earnings resulted largely from the softening commercial real estate market, once a source of tremendous wealth for area banks and thrifts.
But as the boom in real estate started turning to bust, the quality of real estate assets declined, forcing banks here and elsewhere in the Northeast to set aside cash to cover potential problems.
As their stock prices were hammered, the banks reacted by pulling back from making new real estate loans, further depressing the real estate market.
The round of first quarter bank and thrift earnings read almost like a standardized script:
"Contributing to the decline in earnings were ... write-downs of commercial office buildings," said Riggs National Corp.
"The increased levels of provisions and write-downs reflect ... further softening in the economy and real estate markets," said Perpetual Financial Corp.
"First-quarter results reflect our response to potential real estate problems," said MNC Financial Inc.
Complicating the problems, the bankers said, was a posse of federal bank examiners who were using tough new standards to evaluate outstanding loans.
In many cases, the examiners forced bank directors to set aside reserves and take write-downs in the value of property on their books.
The reserves are simply bookkeeping transactions in which money is set aside in case doubtful loans go bad. The write-offs, however, mean that the bank or S&L already had lost money because the property was no longer worth as much as is due on the loan.
Although many bankers said they made adjustments in their first-quarter earnings following regulatory examinations, analysts said the adjustments will continue even without the exams.
"What we saw in the first quarter was a reaction to the regulators," said John Heffern of Alex. Brown & Sons. "But now the managers are becoming pro-active, moving in advance of any regulatory pressure."
The result, warns Heffern, is that bankers "are trying to become even more conservative than the examiners themselves." And that attitude will contribute to further losses in coming quarters, he said.
Hayes and other analysts were reluctant to predict second-quarter performance for individual institutions, but they said no one is immune to the real estate slowdown.
Even those banks and thrifts that boosted cash reserves heavily in the first quarter to protect against problems will likely be forced to make further cash provisions available in the second quarter, the analysts said.
Nearly a dozen banks and thrifts already have acknowledged that they expect to have more problems, including MNC Financial Inc., the parent of American Security Bank and Maryland National Bank; Dominion Bankshares; Crestar Financial; and Perpetual Financial Corp.
Perpetual's $50.2 million loss in the first quarter was the largest reported by any regional financial institution, and resulted largely from a $45.5 million addition to loan-loss reserves in the first quarter.
But Heffern and other analysts said they don't expect to see any more hits of that magnitude because additions to reserves may not be quite as dramatic in the second quarter.
Still, it's a guessing game for everyone until the quarterly results are posted starting the second week in July.
"No, we can't tell exactly how it will all pan out," Heffern said.
"But it's clear we've got an equation that spells more pain and suffering for managers and investors alike."