A number of people in the Washington area may regard the past 12 months as the year that was stolen by the Grinch. It was that bad for some executives, worse for others. It was, by most reckoning, a year of gloom and uncertainty for corporate executives, entrepreneurs and consumers alike.
In many ways, however, 1990 was an extension, if not the climax, of developments that began to take their toll on local businesses and the economy in the prior two years.
The following, from a column that appeared in The Washington Post a year ago, may be helpful in putting 1990's business setbacks in the proper context: "The decade of the '80s will be remembered as the period when metropolitan Washington's economy really began to mature; when the area's private sector exploded, fueling economic growth and firmly supplanting government as the primary source of employment.
"It was, nonetheless, a period of considerable upheaval in the business community, where internal turmoil and external pressures shook the very foundations of many Washington area institutions. Some managed to survive in one form or another; others were taken over or were forced to discontinue in a tumultuous decade of mergers, hostile takeovers, management blunders and scandals."
Except for the references to mergers and takeovers, there was very little that was different in 1990. The economy already had begun to slow down two years earlier, but few people noticed or wanted to believe it. The downturn merely got worse as real estate developers, with the help of their bankers, dug a hole too deep for themselves and others.
If 1989 heralded the beginning of the current business cycle, then 1988 qualifies as a preview year. It was a year of "reversals marked by ironic twists of fate, greed, deceit, palace revolts and serious miscalculations," as noted in a column two years ago. Indeed, it was in 1988 that we began to see the beginning of a crack in Washington's old business establishment, the collapse of local institutions and the effects of greed and gross miscalculations.
Similar factors produced similar results in 1990. They seemed to stand out more as the economy lost momentum. They had a broader impact in 1990 as the economy weakened. And just as 1988's unfinished business became problems in 1989, the fallout from 1990's economic slump, business failures and personal setbacks will be around in 1991.
We already know that the much-chronicled real estate loan problems at Baltimore's MNC Financial Inc. will continue into 1991. MNC's battered real estate loan portfolio and its desperate attempts to rebuild its capital base are certain to have a major impact on banking in Washington and Baltimore. Its principal subsidiaries -- Maryland National Bank, the largest in the state, and Washington's American Security Bank -- are prime lenders to a large number of firms in the region. Thus, the fate of MNC is cause for much uncertainty among its customers. MNC's application to merge American Security and Maryland National adds an intriguing element to the uncertainty.
Banks in general face a year of uncertainty. Chickens are coming home to roost after the real estate lending binge of the '80s. Some almost certainly will lay a couple of rotten eggs on a few doorsteps before the end of 1991. We may not see another failure such as that of the National Bank of Washington, but tough days are ahead. Already, the sounds of a shake-up are reverberating at Madison National Bank, which, like so many others, is stuck with ledgers filled with nonperforming real estate loans that are not earning interest.
We haven't heard the last of the National Bank of Washington story. When regulators locked the doors, it ended 10 years of turmoil and poor management. The legal battles are only beginning.
NBW, of course, was one of a trio of old-line Washington companies that succumbed in 1990 to years of debt and turmoil. It was easy to blame a downturn in the economy for their collapse because of the timing, but totally unrelated factors led to their failure. The venerable Garfinckel's, once the flagship of a department and specialty store chain that included Brooks Brothers, failed after a series of disastrous decisions rendered it too weak to compete. A similar fate befell Fantle's Drug Stores, successor to Dart Drug.
In the coming months there likely will be other failures and people will attribute them to the downturn or recession, if you will. Again, bad decisions will be mostly responsible because certain executives failed to guard against excesses as the economy began to slow down.
The fallout from the real estate-financial institutions binge of the '80s continues to spread and appears to have been too much for some companies to overcome in an economic downturn.
The year of the shakeout is about to begin.