Maryland government regulators and the private insurer of the state's savings and loans received three written warnings about a crisis brewing in that industry between May and August 1984, including one that urged an end to the "piecemeal" regulation of "irresponsible" thrifts 10 months before several associations collapsed.
The unusually blunt letters from Henry A. Berliner Jr., president of a large Salisbury-based savings association, were among the earliest alarms of an impending thrift crisis sounded by a respected member of the industry itself.
Berliner's warnings shed new light on questions at the heart of a special state investigation into the origins of Maryland's thrift crisis: When did the machinery of state government react to signs of trouble in the thrift industry, and could it have prevented a crisis that crippled four large savings and loans and tied up more than $4 billion in deposits?
Berliner's first warning to the state Division of Savings and Loan Associations and the Maryland Savings-Share Insurance Corp. (MSSIC) came on May 14, 1984, five months before a similar warning was issued to Gov. Harry Hughes by state government consultant George W. Liebmann. MSSIC was the private corporation that maintained an insurance pool funded by 102 Maryland thrifts to protect their depositors.
The theme of Berliner's May letter, and those following on June 12 and Aug. 29, 1984, was that improper loans being made by some thrifts and weak state oversight threatened the stability of Maryland's $9 billion savings industry.
"It seems important to our directors that the division and MSSIC have the power . . . to take control of those associations which have demonstrated they cannot manage their own affairs," said Berliner in his May 1984 letter, which is on file with the state S&L division.
Berliner, president of Second National Building & Loan, the fourth largest thrift under the old MSSIC system, refused to comment yesterday about his letters.
But Second National Chairman Eugene F. Ford, who received copies of the letters, expressed disappointment that Berliner's warnings went largely unheeded by state officials and MSSIC.
"The regret is that they didn't find stronger ways to press the matter," said Ford. "These concerns were things that were discussed by people in the industry and, in retrospect, [the industry] maybe should have found some other people to talk to."
In a sense, Berliner's warnings were not news to state regulators and MSSIC officers who, according to documents recently obtained by The Washington Post under Maryland's public information law, knew as early as 1983 that some thrifts were having problems.
Indeed, in replying to Berliner on June 7, 1984, state S&L division Director Charles H. Brown Jr. wrote: "We here at the division share the feelings of your board of directors and management."
Berliner had written in his May letter to Brown, a copy of which was sent to MSSIC, that he was "quite concerned with the fiscal integrity of our MSSIC members" because, he said, they were expanding rapidly without effective monitoring by Brown's small and poorly paid staff of examiners.
Berliner also suggested that Brown's division obtain the legal power to "step in and curtail improper lending or savings practices by our members."
Berliner's suggestion was not original. The state government itself had asked the 1984 General Assembly to approve a measure allowing Brown's division to remove officers of mismanaged thrifts, but the bill died in a House committee and it was not until this year -- after the thrift crisis in May -- that the bill was enacted into law.
In another letter to Brown, dated June 12, 1984, Berliner strongly urged an immediate end to the state's "piecemeal approach to regulation" and once again contended the state lacked true "regulatory authority" and "a willingness to control irresponsible associations."
Berliner sounded a similar theme two months later in a letter to MSSIC -- a copy of which was sent to Brown -- calling for broader enforcement powers at the private insurance corporation.
Berliner did not address specific problems at individual thrifts. But it was during the period of his letters that thrift industry experts were apprising a variety of state officials of questionable practices at Old Court and Merritt Commercial savings and loans, two Baltimore thrifts that were placed in state conservatorship the following May.
Berliner "wasn't the only one who was doing this," said Ford, referring to the letters from Second National's president. "A lot of people had been aware for some time of potential problems" among several savings and loans.