A month after the Hughes administration and the General Assembly undertook sweeping emergency measures to shore up Maryland's troubled savings and loan industry, the state faces a protracted crisis in which the resolution may prove far more nettlesome and costly than was thought in May.
It now appears this long-term crisis, the dimensions of which will come into sharper focus over the next few weeks, could include the failure of several of the largest state-chartered savings and loans to qualify for federal insurance, forcing them into mergers with other associations or into liquidation.
Potential losses could run into the hundreds of millions of dollars, exposing the state to an expense far greater than the legislature and governor envisioned when they authorized a $100 million bond fund last month, according to estimates from several financial experts familiar with the current state of the industry.
Interviews with a wide range of state officials and executives of the state's financial industries suggest that the decisive actions taken by Gov. Harry Hughes and the legislature -- including the imposition of strict withdrawal limits on the 102 state-chartered thrifts and enactment of legislation forcing the largest thrifts to get federal insurance -- may have solved the immediate crisis without accounting fully for problems ingrained in an industry that grew at an explosive rate in recent years.
As more than 200 federal and state bank examiners neared completion of their audits of the state thrifts last week to determine whether they will qualify for insurance under the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. (FSLIC), Hughes acknowledged, in his usual understated fashion, what lies ahead. "We have some decisions to make," he said at a news conference last week.
Those decisions will, among other things, determine the future of two Baltimore thrifts under state conservatorship and withdrawal bans -- Old Court Savings and Loan, whose management problems triggered the May crisis, and Merritt Commercial Savings and Loan -- and ultimately dictate how to deal with those other large associations that many people familiar with the industry now fear may not qualify for FSLIC.
"We did the only thing we could do to stem the panic -- have the state absorb things -- but now we have the longer, more frustrating period of trying to work through the details of the problem," said Del. Robert R. Neall (R-Anne Arundel), the minority leader of the House of Delegates.
Conditions at Old Court, as was true in the early stages of the crisis, remain the most difficult problem. A team of executives from Chevy Chase Savings and Loan, the state's largest, is inside Old Court now at the request of Baltimore Circuit Court Judge Joseph H.H. Kaplan, assessing its far-flung and often undocumented assets and loans. Kaplan also has frozen withdrawals and limited interest payments at Old Court and Merritt for the next three months.
Many people familiar with the thrift industry say it will likely be years before Old Court's holdings are finally sorted out and ultimately liquidated. And some fear the combined cost of dealing with Old Court, Merritt and whatever other thrifts that do not qualify for federal insurance may be considerable.
"There is a great concern with Old Court and Merritt that the governor is whistling past the graveyard in thinking that the $100 million fund will do it," said one banker who is active in Baltimore financial circles. This banker, and several others who spoke on the condition of anonymity, estimated that the state stands to be liable for at least $200 million and perhaps as much as $500 million because of the many questionable investments and management practices now coming to light in the wake of this crisis.
Officials in the Hughes administration dismiss such estimates as nothing more than speculation, although some say privately that several thrifts besides Old Court and Merritt may not be able to win FSLIC protection. Even if that happens, the officials argue, those institutions may take a variety of steps to reduce any loss to the state government.
"You have no idea at this juncture what associations will get FSLIC and what won't," said Ejner J. Johnson, the Hughes staff chief who has monitored the S&L crisis since its earliest days. Johnson dismissed the widely held belief that the state stands to lose $300 million or more as "pure poppycock."
Perhaps the most formidable task facing the state is to assess and then liquidate the assets of Old Court and other troubled thrifts, thereby injecting much-needed cash into associations and providing a clearer picture of the state's exposure.
"Until then, we're faced with a range of possibilities from no losses to very substantial losses," said H. Louis Stettler III, the state budget secretary. "The assets of those without FSLIC is a couple of billion dollars, so you have the whole magnitude of loss from that to zero. But you know it's not going to be at either end."
For Stettler and others, the overriding concern is to get the best price when disposing of a thrift's assets, a time-consuming chore made all the more difficult with depositors and creditors chafing at withdrawal limits. Compounding the problem is the difficulty of ascertaining the true market value of many of the thrifts' most speculative investments. In some cases it appears that investments may have been recorded at grossly inflated values.
The state government's effort to reduce its financial exposure coincides with a variety of developments that might simplify that task or cause profound aftershocks that Marylanders could feel for years.
Some experts view the emergence of interstate banking as a partial solution, with out-of-state banks coming to Maryland's rescue by buying up ailing thrifts. Others, though, question whether any Maryland-based or outside bank would do so, since most would likely demand, as a condition of purchase, that the state cap their exposure to loss from hidden liabilities.
Also in the months ahead, the state will be preparing to sell general-obligation bonds to finance government construction projects and a variety of other programs. Yet, if the state's loss in the S&L crisis is much more than $100 million, officials may be reluctant to go to market to sell those bonds, stifling a host of projects designed to create jobs and generate revenue for the state. Many officials fear that the unanswered question of the state's exposure in this crisis could jeopardize the state's AAA bond rating, forcing it to pay higher interest rates.
One state agency is already feeling the pinch. A $1 million minority business assistance program managed by the Department of Economic and Community Development was scheduled to start this month but has stalled because bonds for it have not been sold. "The bond problem started before the S&L crisis," one community development official said. "But the crisis made things worse. We have programs that are going to run out of money this summer."
As officials settle in for a long summer dominated by attempts to reduce the state's liability, many are finding it difficult to remain optimistic about their chances for success.
"Just the uncertainty is a problem," said Shale D. Stiller, the Baltimore attorney for the conservator of Old Court. "The key point is we have control. But you never know what's going to happen."