Maybe George Bailey should've jumped — and made his savings and loan a commercial bank.
If he had, he'd have been much better prepared for the Federal Reserve's recent decision to raise certain capital requirements, a move some are calling the death knell for the classic thrift business model: lend to home buyers like crazy.
"We believe that regulatory changes following the financial crisis … have ended the viability of the thrift industry," analysts at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods wrote last week. "Higher capital requirements will not support the revitalization of the thrift industry, in our opinion, and as a result the industry will continue to fade away."
Thrifts have historically focused on residential loans, pretty much to the exclusion of all else. Maintaining high leverage allowed thrifts to post profits in spite of low margins and negligible fee income, said Frederick Cannon, Keefe Bruyette's chief equity strategist.
No longer. With residential real estate values battered by recession, such mortgages are now a higher-risk asset class, and many thrifts are dramatically reducing their dependence on home loans, in favor of different revenue streams.
In 2006, for example, the median ratio of residential mortgages to total loans at the 20 biggest thrifts was 78%. At March 31 of this year that ratio stood at just 61%, according to KBW.
The trend is likely to continue. The Fed's decision to adopt international capital standards promulgated by the Basel Committee on Banking Supervision will push even more thrifts to abandon the old thrift model, Cannon says. Banks have until 2019 to comply with the Fed's new capital requirement.
The declines are apparent at some of the biggest thrifts.
Flagstar Bancorp in Troy, Mich., reduced its ratio of residential mortgages to 72% at March 31, from 90% in 2006.
At Investors Bancorp the ratio fell to 58% at the end of the first quarter, down from 90% in 2006. The $11 billion-asset Short Hills, N.J., company on Monday said it would buy Marathon National Bank, which has 13 branches around New York.
A number of small thrifts, meanwhile, have abandoned their old ways by scrapping their thrift charters, getting out of the residential mortgage business, or both. ViewPoint Financial Group, a $3.5 billion-asset banking company in Plano, Texas, earlier this month agreed to sell its home-lending unit to a nonbank mortgage lender. ViewPoint converted to a commercial bank charter last year, abandoning its thrift charter.
The $9.5 billion-asset Sterling Financial in Spokane, Wash., became a commercial bank in 2005 and has since reduced its exposure to single-family mortgages. The company in February dropped "Savings" from the name of unit Sterling Bank, severing any ties to its days as a thrift.
And Greene County Bancorp retains a savings association bank charter, but it has operated more like a commercial bank since the late 1990s, said Don Gibson, the Catskill, N.Y., company's president and chief executive. While one- to four-family residential loans still make up about 71% of the $579 million-asset company's loan book, Greene County has been putting more emphasis on its commercial lending, he said.
"Everyone has to find their niche, and the traditional thrift model doesn't work well for us," Gibson admitted. "Just because you're chartered as a thrift doesn't mean you are a thrift."
Some savings and loans are digging in their heels.
"A lot of our peers have moved in the direction of being a commercial bank," said Peter Boger, the chairman, president and chief executive of Ridgewood Savings Bank in Queens. "I don't see that happening anytime soon here."