Friday, October 9, 2009

Banks Have Us Flying Blind on Depth of Losses: Jonathan Weil

There was a stunning omission from the government’s latest list of “problem” banks, which ran to 416 lenders, a 15-year high, as of June 30. One outfit not on the list was Georgian Bank, the second-largest Atlanta-based bank, which supposedly had plenty of capital.

It failed last week.

Georgian’s clean-up will be unusually costly. The book value of Georgian’s assets was $2 billion as of July 24, about the same as the bank’s deposit liabilities, according to a Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. press release. The FDIC estimates the collapse will cost its insurance fund $892 million, or 45 percent of the bank’s assets. That percentage was almost double the average for this year’s 95 U.S. bank failures, and it was the highest among the 10 largest ones.

How many other seemingly healthy multibillion-dollar community banks are out there waiting to implode? That’s impossible to know, which is what’s so unsettling about Georgian’s sudden downfall. Just when the conventional wisdom suggests the banking crisis might be under control, along comes a reality check that tells us we’re still flying blind.

The cost of Georgian’s failure confirms that the bank’s asset values were too optimistic. It also helps explain why the FDIC, led by Chairman Sheila Bair, is resorting to extraordinary measures to replenish its battered insurance fund.

Georgian, which had five branches catering to local businesses and wealthy individuals, was chartered in 2001. By 2003, the closely held bank had raised $50 million from an investor group led by a longtime local banker, Gordon Teel, who remained chief executive officer until last July. It grew at a breathtaking pace, fueled by the real-estate bubble.

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