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Banking Slump Striking at Its Victims Selectively : Finance: Some major institutions remain highly profitable. Repetition of S&L; debacle seen as unlikely.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Security Pacific Corp.'s disclosure this week that it will lose as much as $360 million in the fourth quarter is the latest in a string of bank problems nationwide that has put to a test the public’s confidence in the nation’s banking system.

Virtually every day, more bad news surfaces from the corporate suites or the halls of Congress. On Tuesday, for example, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman L. William Seidman issued a pessimistic warning that recent declines in bank profits and soft Northeast real estate prices will result in a $4-billion loss for the nation’s bank insurance fund this year. That is about $1 billion more than previously projected and leaves only $9 billion to insure $2 trillion in deposits.

Comptroller of the Currency Robert L. Clarke, the chief regulator of national banks, said in a recent speech that the industry’s image is more tarnished now than it has been since the Great Depression. “Bankers don’t have a reservoir of public goodwill from which to draw,” Clarke said.

But, despite the flurry of bad news, the banking industry’s slump is selectively choosing its victims. Some of the nation’s largest banks--Chase Manhattan, Bank of New England and Security Pacific--have disclosed huge problems. But, some large banks have remained highly profitable, such as J. P. Morgan in New York, BankAmerica Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. in California, First Wachovia in North Carolina and Banc One in Ohio.

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Few expect banks to go the way of savings and loans. Unlike banks, thrifts skated on a thin layer of funds invested by their owners. In some cases, disreputable managers easily took control of thrifts. Supervision was lax, and accounting gimmicks made some savings and loans appear healthier than they really were.

But many banks did expand into risky areas in the 1980s and will be paying for it in the 1990s. Commercial real estate markets are in a free fall in some areas. High flyers such as developer Donald J. Trump are having trouble paying their debts. Credit card delinquencies are rising. And companies that borrowed heavily to finance buyouts are squeezed.

As deep as banking’s problems are, depositors have little to worry about. Generous federal deposit insurance backs accounts up to $100,000. Indeed, as big as the savings and loan scandal is, hardly anyone has ever lost money deposited in a thrift. That’s because taxpayers shoulder the losses, estimated at $600 billion over the next 40 years.

The commercial banking industry “is not an S&L-type; situation,” Seidman stressed Tuesday. “I don’t think there is any reason for depositors to be concerned, or for borrowers, either,” he added. “The system is not collapsing.”

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Still, uncertainty is growing over the condition of California banks in the wake of the state’s real estate slowdown, softening economy and higher unemployment rate.

First Interstate Bancorp, the weakest of the state’s four largest banks, has suffered mainly from its ill-fated move into Texas and the softening Arizona economy. But the Los Angeles banking firm disclosed recently that it also expects more loan problems in California and that its Nevada unit is having problems.

The bank has been profitable recently, and its executives say they are trying hard to fix its problems.

Security Pacific’s problems are deep but so far seem unique to the bank. Of the $850 million the Los Angeles bank disclosed on Monday that it is setting aside to deal with problems, $600 million is for possible losses on loans. More than half of that amount is for problem loans in Australia and Arizona, with the rest for unspecified problems that may occur in the future. A separate $200 million will pay to dismantle the bank’s investment bank-style unit, which has failed to deliver big profits.

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Wells Fargo is the biggest question mark among banks in the state. Investors either love it or hate it.

There is little in its publicly released profit numbers to indicate any problems. The bank is considered by investors and stock analysts to be one of the nation’s best managed, especially in the risky area of real estate lending. The bank received an important vote of confidence when Omaha investor Warren E. Buffett disclosed he owns nearly 10% of it.

But a substantial number of investors are convinced that San Francisco-based Wells Fargo is headed for a fall because of its high concentration of real estate and corporate buyout loans. In reacting to a slowdown in business, Wells Fargo in October confirmed that it is closing four real estate offices nationwide.

BankAmerica, which nearly failed in the mid-1980s, has emerged as one of the two strongest giants in the state, along with Wells Fargo. BankAmerica’s retreat from real estate lending during part of the 1980s helped it to avoid many of the problems other banks are facing. It is now expanding rapidly by buying failed savings and loans. Still, a softer California economy in 1991 will bring problems.

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The second tier of California banks is largely controlled by Japanese banks, such as Union Bank, Sumitomo Bank, Bank of California and Sanwa Bank. Japanese banks are under pressure in the wake of the downturn in Japan’s securities and real estate markets. Although their California operations do not appear to be in trouble, Japanese-controlled banks are expected to slow their expansion in the United States.

Problems may begin to surface for small community banks. Michael Conover, who advises community banks as head of the Los Angeles office of Ryan Beck & Co. investment bankers, said he expects some community banks to suffer real estate problems next year, especially those that heavily financed construction of homes that aren’t selling.

In California, the banking industry’s problems will blunt any impact of the lowering of interstate barriers to competition beginning next year. Banking executives for some time have called interstate banking a non-event, a position reinforced by problems being suffered by the large New York banks that were once eager to move into the state.

The nation’s large “money center” banks have some of the industry’s largest problems. They are setting aside huge amounts of money to cover possible losses on real estate loans. This has prompted speculation that some of the large money center banks may be forced into mergers soon.

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Chase Manhattan in October set aside $1 billion--$650 million for possible losses on real estate loans and $350 million to cover costs of cutting as many as 5,000 employees from its payroll.

Chemical Banking also is losing money because of problems with commercial real estate. Citicorp is being hit hard by real estate problems and expects to trim several thousand jobs from its payroll. Manufacturers Hanover is profitable but also faces troubles related to the soft Northeast economy.

Maverick J. P. Morgan, which has moved increasingly toward becoming similar to a Wall Street firm, remains one of the industry’s strongest and most profitable banks. And, although it is trimming employees, Bankers Trust, which also has shifted toward investment banking, remains stronger than most.

Some of the stronger banks are so-called “superregionals,” especially Banc One in Ohio, Norwest in Minneapolis and First Wachovia in North Carolina.

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But some have been hurt by the real estate recession that has spread through large areas of the country. New England and Mid-Atlantic banks continue to suffer the worst problems.

Fleet/Norstar in Rhode Island, historically one of the strongest in the country, has been hit hard by the downturn. Bank of New England in Massachusetts is struggling to survive. And Midlantic Corp. in New Jersey has suffered losses caused by that state’s real estate problems.

In the Southeast, slower real estate markets have hurt such major regional banks as NCNB in North Carolina and C&S;/Sovran in Georgia.

Staff writer Robert A. Rosenblatt in Washington contributed to this story.

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