Perpetual Financial Corp., parent of the area's largest savings and loan association, said yesterday that it lost $146.8 million in 1990, one of the largest losses so far attributed to the slowdown in the real estate market and the region's economy. The S&L also announced that longtime chairman Thomas J. Owen had resigned.

The Vienna-based Perpetual S&L, which is operating under a supervisory agreement with federal regulators, said the mammoth losses caused it to fall below federal requirements for capital, the financial cushion that protects against losses and a measure of a thrift's well-being.

Failure to meet capital standards is a serious sign of financial distress, although it does not mean that Perpetual will be taken over by the federal government, an action that would take many more factors into consideration.

Perpetual's deposits are protected by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. up to $100,000 per customer account.

The resignation of Owen, whose family has guided Perpetual since the Great Depression, did not surprise members of the business community, who said yesterday that the chairman stopped playing a meaningful role at Perpetual when he resigned as chief executive officer last summer.

Owen said then that he had lost the battle with federal regulators over the future of his S&L, a situation that shocked industry observers who credited Owen for Perpetual's innovations. Owen could not be reached for comment yesterday.

John Morton, a former Maryland National Bank executive who was appointed Perpetual chief executive in September, will assume the position of chairman. He will also become president, a post that has remained vacant since Ross Towne resigned in May.

Since coming on board, Morton has added his own team of managers, many of whom followed him from the struggling Maryland National Bank.

Morton said in a statement yesterday that Perpetual "is squarely facing the problems which have resulted from the deterioration in the local real estate market with a number of initiatives," including dealing with more than $100 million in troubled loans, improving the S&L's cash position, reducing expenses and shrinking Perpetual's size by $1.5 billion.

The S&L's "core retail business continues to do very well in terms of consumer deposits, residential mortgage lending and improving profitability," Morton said.

Perpetual will submit a plan to regulators outlining how financial health will be improved, he said.

In the three months ended Dec. 31, Perpetual said it lost $63.1 million. The heavy annual and quarterly losses were attributed to skyrocketing troubled commercial real estate loans, a restructuring of the business and the sale of problem assets.

In 1990, Perpetual said that loans in default or no longer paying interest had more than tripled, to $468.5 million from $150 million in 1989. Nearly all of those were related to loans on commercial properties here, the S&L said. Due to Perpetual's change several months ago from a fiscal to a calendar year, comparisons of many figures with prior periods were not available.

Perpetual's stock price dropped 12 1/2 cents yesterday on the news, to close at 37 1/2 cents a share on the New York Stock Exchange.

Perpetual was one of the first area institutions to feel the effects of the slowdown in the real estate market, and it has seen its financial health continue to deteriorate throughout the year.

In response to its financial difficulties and a new regulatory environment ushered in by President Bush's S&L rescue bill, Perpetual announced in June that it had signed an agreement with regulators that would steer Perpetual back to its basic business of home mortgages and consumer lending.

Federal regulators ordered the S&L to stop lending on commercial properties, to sell its insurance subsidiary and to divest itself of all real estate joint ventures -- businesses that Owen had built in the 1980s to transform Perpetual into a more bank-like operation.

Dismantling those subsidiaries was a bitter pill for Owen to swallow, and when he resigned his position as CEO, he said he had lost the fight with the Bush administration and federal regulators.

Following his resignation as CEO, Owen, 56, told associates that he expected to remain chairman until his employment contract expired in 1992. A statement released yesterday said Owen, who succeeded his father as head of the institution in 1977, had decided to retire early.

Vice President Robert A. Barton Jr. said he is confident that Perpetual will survive the turmoil and meet the federal capital standards in the future.

"We missed it -- but we'll get back in there down the road," Barton said. "There has been a major effort inside the bank to see that we improve our position." Barton declined to specify how much capital is needed to be raised.

Perpetual has been selling branches, firing employees, foreclosing on properties and selling assets in an effort to comply with the capital standards. However, much of the thrift's success depends on forces beyond Perpetual's control.

If a continued deterioration of the region's real estate market prevents real estate assets from being sold and forces more real estate loans into default, it could be extremely difficult for Perpetual to obey the regulators' orders, the thrift has said.

Barton said investors already have expressed interest in buying some of Perpetual's real estate holdings, which will be sold by Coldwell Banker Real Estate starting in February.

To help protect against losses on these problem loans, Perpetual added $39 million in the fourth quarter to its reserve for loan losses. At year-end, that reserve totaled $77.7 million, giving Perpetual only 16 cents to protect against every dollar of potential loss.

Perpetual also took charge-offs of $88.9 million last year, up from the $7.1 million taken in 1989. Such charge-offs are the way that savings and loans recognize losses that already have occurred.