If you have been making your financial decisions based on newspaper headlines lately, you probably have your entire net worth stuffed in the mattress. Or maybe buried out back in an old Army surplus ammo can.
Between the long-playing Utah thrift crisis, the capital problems of FSLIC (the government fund that guarantees savings and loan deposits), the massive problems of the S&L industry in general and the red ink being generated by a few of the nation's largest banks - culminating last week in the FDIC (the bank guarantee fund) $4 billion bailout of First RepublicBank in Texas . . . well, it's enough to make Chicken Little go into his act again.Maybe the sky is falling after all.
But no, assures J. Ronald Hybarger, senior vice president of Ferguson & Co., a consultant to some 40 financial institutions across America who is based in Irving, Texas. Things are not as bad on the fiscal front as they might seem.
"It's important to keep this in perspective," said Hybarger, in town this week to advise Utah bankers on improving the profitability of their various institutions. "Most of my bank clients are having their best year ever."
Hybarger and Jonathan Lindley, managing director of Ferguson & Co.'s Washington, D.C., office, held a seminar at the Garn Institute of Finance for some 40 local bank representatives.
It's a case of a few large banks that have not been taking care of business, casting a shadow over the entire industry, said Hybarger. Most community banks, he contends, including those in Utah, are doing just fine.
How have they managed this? By keeping their heads down, paying attention to basics, and being very, very careful about to whom and for what they loan their money.
Utah's economic doldrums of recent years notwithstanding, Hybarger points out that the nation overall has been enjoying a very healthy economy. Banks should be making money, he says.
All this optimism might sound suspect coming from a consultant based in a suburb of Dallas, ground zero for most of the bad banking news, but Hybarger refuses to take that rap.
"I don't do much business in Texas," he assures. But he is surprisingly candid in assessing blame for the financial failings of the Lone Star state.
"The problems in Texas have less to do with the economy and more with the cowboy mentality," he said.
"And the problems with the thrifts (as savings and loans are termed almost everywhere but Utah) have nothing to do with the oil and gas business; they have to do with the real estate business."
Banking, says Hybarger, is really a very simple business. You buy and sell money and make your living on the spread. But since deregulation, he says, many people have been trying to make it more complicated than that. The result has not been pretty.
Much has been made recently of the capital problems of FSLIC, to wit, the insurance fund has not a fraction of the funds it would need to cover all the deposits if the shaky S&Ls it insures were allowed to fail. Doesn't matter, contends Lindley, these aren't really insurance funds; they are guarantee funds, and the guarantor is the "full faith and credit" of the federal government.
Uncle Sam wouldn't renege on that, says Lindley, even if he wanted to. It simply wouldn't do to have a national crisis on the order of Utah's thrift debacle.
So "mom and pop" don't have to worry about their S&L deposits, he assures. In fact, says Garn Institute director Elaine Weis, former Utah commissioner of financial institutions, many investors are taking advantage of the high interest rates for deposits being offered by some of the shakiest thrift institutions across the country. With their Uncle Sam backing them up - provided they don't exceed the $100,000 guarantee limit - why not?
Why not, indeed? Even other financial institutions, from banks to securities brokerages, have been playing that game, says Weis. And she believes the government may end up making exceptions to bailing out these institutional investors should the need arise.
Lindley disagrees. He believes the government won't discriminate on certificates of deposit held by Joe Citizen vs. those held by Acme Investments.
In any case, Lindley sees it as a political decision that will be made by the next president.
"My guess is that, very early in the next administration, you will see some massive federal assistance to FSLIC and probably some backup assistance to FDIC. I don't see any difference among the political parties on this."