CommerceBancorp Loses $3 Million for 1991 : * Banking: Bad commercial and construction loans are blamed for the first annual loss in the institution's 12-year history.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Plagued by bad commercial and construction loans, CommerceBancorp said Thursday that it lost $3 million for 1991--the first time red ink has tarnished the 12-year-old company's annual results.

The $1.32-a-share loss at the holding company for CommerceBank in Newport Beach is a big drop from earnings of $3.6 million, or $1.57 a share, in 1990.

The once profitable and highly regarded bank, which caters almost exclusively to business and construction customers, was hit hard by the recession.

As loans went sour, it was forced to pump money into reserves for possible loan losses, said Raymond E. Dellerba, the bank's president and chief executive.

Loan loss reserves more than doubled to $7.2 million at the end of the year, or 3.26% of the bank's total loans. Banking regulators generally want that ratio below 3%.

The bank's big hit came in the fourth quarter when it lost $3.6 million, or $1.60 a share, compared to net income of $931,000, or 35 cents a share, for the previous year's final quarter.

CommerceBank, one of the biggest Orange County banks, began downsizing after reaching a high of $330.4 million in assets at the end of June.

The company, whose only asset is the bank, ended the year with $294.8 million in assets, slightly higher than its $290.9-million size a year earlier.

In contrast to the dreary results, the bank's capital base remained strong and exceeded minimum regulatory requirements.

The bank's problems started cropping up last year as construction loans began to sour. It had to write down the value of those loans as well as sock money away in reserve, the two actions that did most of the damage to the company's bottom line.

Though the bank's major owners are builders and developers--Timothy L. Strader of the Legacy Cos. is CommerceBank's chairman--the institution's management halted construction lending for a while as the real estate recession hit Orange County last year.

But as the recession worsened, some of the bank's commercial customers, including one major borrower, got behind on their loans or stopped making payments altogether. After reporting a $330,000 third-quarter profit, the bank was forced to restate its numbers and post a $240,000 loss.

The bank also lost some key executives in the last quarter and finally, in a move that surprised other area bankers last month, the company's directors ousted Clyde H. Gossert from his positions as chairman and chief executive of the bank and its holding company.

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