Banking Industry Finding a New “Normal”

credit toWendell Cochran, Investigative Reporting Workshop at American University

Bank profits are rising and lending is growing as the battered industry struggles to regain a semblance of normality, new government figures show.

Some of the signs:

  • Profits are up. Banks made $35.6 billion in the first quarter, according the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. That’s the best quarter since mid-2007, before the industry was plunged into its worst crisis in a generation.
  • Lending is growing, despite a small downturn in the first three months of the year. Business lending is up by 14 percent in the past year.
  • Troubled assets are down. The amount of troubled assets — a combination of nonperforming loans and the value of foreclosed property — continues to tumble, according to an analysis of FDIC quarterly financial reports by the Investigative Reporting Workshop. At the end of March, the nation’s banks were carrying over $240 billion in troubled assets, but that’s the lowest level since December 2008, when the scope of the financial crisis was beginning to be understood.

To some extent, whether banking is back depends on which banker you talk to.

Herbert Marth Jr., president of the $390-million asset Central Virginia Bank in Powhatan, Va., laughs at the question. “Oh, man. No.”

“Business people are still very cautious. Loan demand is still very, very weak. That’s probably the toughest issue right now,” he says.

At Northwest Financial Corp., which owns three banks in Iowa, President Jeff Plagge says, “I’m not sure what ‘normal’ is.”

Still he senses that people think it is time to get back to business, although they remain wary because of events like last week’s stock price tumble caused by worry over European financial issues. Unlike Marth, Plagge sees some rekindling of loan demand.

“In our three banks we are seeing people kind of back to what I call ‘normal,’” he says. Strong grain and livestock prices over the past few years have helped many banks in the agricultural heartland get through the crisis in better shape than banks elsewhere. Only two Iowa banks have failed since the beginning of 2007.

He also is vice chair of the American Bankers Association and says that “even in the most troubled places” his colleagues around the country “at least think it’s found the bottom.”

You couldn’t blame bankers for being a bit cautious about saying the industry is out of the woods. It has been traumatized by its experiences over the past five years. For many banks there still is a mountain of troubled debt and a long line of foreclosures to work through.

Since the end of 2007, 438 banks have failed, and another 788 have merged into other institutions, meaning that on average banks have gotten larger. The rate of failures has slowed, peaking at 157 in 2010, down to 92 last year and 24 so far this year.

Between September 2008 and December 2008, the federal government handed out $204.9 billion in capital assistance to more than 800 banks through the Troubled Asset Relief Program (TARP). All but about $11.6 billion of that has been repaid, according to the Treasury Department. Workshop records show that 393 banks still have not repaid their TARP investments. (Note: The Workshop links TARP investments to individual banks, not just to the holding companies that own them. The Treasury Department says it invested in 707 institutions.)

By its accounting, Treasury has lost about $2.7 billion of TARP funds in banks and related financial institutions that failed, including $2.3 billion to CIT Group Inc., which declared bankruptcy in 2009, less than a year after getting the TARP money. The company’s bank subsidiary, CIT Bank, did not fail and continues to operate. Treasury also has accepted less than its full investments in some cases where banks merged into other institutions.

Since TARP began in 2008 Treasury has collected nearly $21.5 billion in interest and dividends on its investments. Of the active banks that still owe money, 197 are behind on their dividend payments, owing a total of more than $305 million at the end of April, according to the Treasury Department. The Treasury Department has installed government observers in 51 TARP banks to better oversee their activities.

It may be awhile before the government sees much of the money it is still owed. While the nation’s largest banks lobbied for and got quick permission to pay back their government funds (in part because they wanted to escape restraints on executive pay), smaller regional and community banks have had a harder time getting out of the program.

The Inspector General for the TARP program reported to Congress in late April that the banks still in TARP are generally smaller community banks and that they are institutions that “have an uphill battle to exit TARP because they cannot find new capital to replace TARP funds.”

The Central Virginia Bank, where Marth is president, is an example of the issues smaller banks face trying to exit TARP. Marth says having TARP money, “definitely helped us out and continues to help us out.” The $390 million-asset bank got an $11.4 million infusion from TARP in January 2009.

Marth says the bank mostly needed the money because it lost $18 million overnight in September 2008 when the government took over mortgage companies Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, wiping out the bank’s investment in their preferred stock. “If we had that money today, we wouldn’t have needed TARP,” he says.

Central Virginia has had a difficult time keeping up its payments because of heavy loan losses in 2009 and 2010. At the end of April it owed the Treasury about $1.3 million in dividends on TARP. The bank worked its way back to profitability in 2011.

Marth says that when the economy and capital markets improve, “We ought to be able to raise additional capital.” But, he adds, given the uncertainty around the financial situation in Europe, “Right now is not the time.”

The largest outstanding TARP advance went to Synovus Financial Corp. of Columbus, Ga., which received $967.9 million in December 2008. Synovus is current on its dividends and has never missed a payment, according to Treasury Department reports. The smallest remaining TARP investment is $301,000 owed by tiny The Freeport State Bank, Harper, Kan. , which also is current on its dividend payments. In its statements on TARP, Treasury is generally upbeat. It highlights that between repayments and dividends, the bank investment program is in the black.

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