Every Friday is the same at the Resolution Trust Corp., the year-old government agency that is in charge of cleaning up the wreckage of the savings and loan industry.
In the morning -- or the night before -- teams of RTC accountants, examiners and lawyers board airplanes at National, Dulles and Baltimore-Washington International airports, bound for the cities where S&Ls are failing.
By the end of banking hours, they are waiting at the doors of a batch of thrifts that have been operating under government management and are doing their last day of business.
Then, as facsimile machines in Washington transmit the names of the moribund to the media, the RTC begins a ritual that has been repeated 148 times since the agency was created last August, 96 times in the last 2 1/2 months, including 15 times yesterday. It is what RTC Chairman L. William Seidman has dubbed Operation Cleansweep.
"The board of directors of the Resolution Trust Corporation has approved the sale of Gibraltar Savings and Loan Association F.A., Annapolis, Md., to Annapolis National Bank, Annapolis, Md.," said one of yesterday's thrift obituaries. "Gibraltar Savings' five former banking offices will reopen on Monday, June 11, 1990, and will operate according to Annapolis National's normal schedule."
From Annapolis to Albuquerque, 15 other thrifts were "resolved" -- as the RTC likes to put it -- at an estimated cost to the taxpayers of about $1.2 billion, $9.6 million of it for Gibraltar.
Gibraltar was one of six thrifts that were sold to other S&Ls or banks that paid the government for the right to take over a going business. Annapolis National paid $2 million.
At another six thrifts, the depositors' accounts were transferred to neighboring institutions, which didn't want the vaults, offices or drive-up windows, but were willing to pay a little to get the deposits.
Three S&Ls were simply put out of business. They were shut down and the depositors paid off as the government kept its promise to protect accounts of up to $100,000. Since these thrifts' troubles had been known for years, almost everybody with more than $100,000 had long since taken it out.
By Monday morning, the RTC will have alphabetized boxes of checks waiting to be picked up by depositors.
The RTC wrote checks at the other thrifts as well, checks totaling $2.3 billion to cover the accumulated losses that drove the associations into insolvency.
But that is not all yesterday's 15 transactions will cost the taxpayers. The thrifts had made hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bad loans and repossessed thousands of properties from borrowers who couldn't pay their debts.
The RTC estimated the ultimate cost of yesterday's deals at about $1.2 billion after the government recovers what it can, but the final cost will not be known until all that real estate is sold and all those bad debts settled.
That task will take so long, Seidman has been saying recently, that when he retires later this year the job should be given to "someone just graduating from business school" -- so they'll have an entire career to devote to it.
And it will be the most costly financial scandal in the nation's history, at least $132 billion by the Bush administration's latest estimate, maybe as much as $500 billion if the costs continue to grow and interest on the debt is included.
Since the RTC was created last August by the S&L cleanup legislation, the agency has resolved 148 thrifts, including yesterday's 15.
As of today, another 285 thrifts with assets of $165 billion are being run by RTC-appointed receivers and conservators, waiting to be disposed of. That includes three more that failed yesterday and were seized by the Office of Thrift Supervision, the other federal agency involved in the cleanup.
Approximately 400 more thrifts are in precarious financial condition. How many of them will fail and require government assistance is the biggest unknown in the thrift cost equation.
When Seidman announced Operation Cleansweep around the first of April, he promised to resolve 141 cases during the quarter-year ending June 30, a massive shutdown of financial institutions unprecedented in the nation's history.
The count was up to 96 as of yesterday. Yesterday's total of 15 was the most ever handled in a single day, a record pace that the RTC will have to maintain for the next three Fridays to meet Seidman's goal.
While Operation Cleansweep is pretty much on schedule, it is not working out according to plan.
The RTC is finding the cleanup to be more costly than expected, Seidman said last week, because the S&Ls are turning out to be worth less than the RTC hoped.
The trouble, Seidman said, is that once the government seizes an association, its value begins to deteriorate rapidly. Borrowers decide they don't want to do business with a government-operated thrift.
Savers figure that if their deposit is likely to be paid off someday -- or transferred to some other thrift -- they might as well take their money out now.
The solution, he said, is going to be to start finding buyers for failed thrifts before the OTS seizes them. He wants to "arrange marriages" between sinking thrifts and waiting buyers, avoiding the suffering and damages from operating under government management.
But it is too late to do that with the nearly 300 associations that the RTC is now managing. The only choices are those used yesterday: pay off the depositors, transfer the accounts to another institution or sell the association.
Because it costs a lot of money to balance every account and write a check to every saver, simply paying off the depositors is the most expensive solution.
It is a remedy of last resort that has been used in only 11 of the 148 cases resolved so far.
Selling the association or its deposits saves the government the cost of writing checks, but buyers aren't willing to bid much for thrifts these days, so the RTC has been taking "what are clearly fire-sale prices," said Miami banking professor and thrift consultant Kenneth Thomas.
"It's like going to a garage sale late on Saturday afternoon and offering some guy 50 cents for a weedwhacker," said Thomas. "It's an embarrassingly low price, but at that moment, he'll take just about anything."
The cheapest sale Thomas has seen was early this year in the little town of Opp, Ala., where the RTC sold an S&L branch with $5 million in deposits for $1,020 -- a price so low that Thomas at first thought the decimal point was in the wrong place.
"A thousand dollars is a better deal for the government than paying to write the checks," said RTC communications director Steve Katsanos.