WASHINGTON - Savings and loans earned a record $1.76 billion in the first quarter, but regulators tempered the good news with a warning: 10% of the industry is flirting with failure.

Jonathan L. Fiechter, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, said Thursday that 183 of 1,802 thrifts,with $117 billion of the industry's $738 billion of assets, are on the agency's problem list.

"If they can't make money in this environment, then clearly they've got relatively severe asset quality problems," Mr. Fiechter told reporters at a news-conference.

"This is really a high number of problem institutions," he said, nothing that only 5% of the bank are on the Federal Deposit it Insurance Corp.'s problem list.

Loses Cited

Mr. Fiechter said 75% of the problem institutions, with about $60 billion of assets, are losing money.

Most of the institutions on the problem list remain solvent. As of March 31, only for insolvent S&Ls remained open, compared with 21 a year ago, 88 in March 1991, and 648 in March 1988.

OTS said thrifts have made money in the last nine quarters. First-quarter earnings exceeded year-earlier figures by 14% and the fourth quarter's $1.1 billion profit by 67%.

S&Ls are making big returns from record interest rate spreads.

Worsening Spread

Mr. Fiechter said the gap between what thrifts pay for money and what they earn has windened continuously for two straight years. At the end of the first quarter, the spread on thrift assets was 302 basis points, 29 basis points above a year earlier.

Asset quality also is improving for most $&Ls. Problem assets fell to $20.9 billion in the first quarter, down from $31.3 billion in March 1992. Currently, problem assets represent 2.85% of total thrift assets.

The number of S&Ls continues to decline as well, falling 53 in the first quarter to 1,802. Five years ago, there were nearly 3,000 thrifts.

In addition to the total number of S&Ls shrinking, Mr. Fiechter said federal thrifts continue to abandon he OTS for state charters in record numbers.

In the first quarter, 25 federal thrifts switched to state charters. Another 30 thrifts have switched since March 31 and 33 applications for charter conversion are pending.

"At this pace, we're losing 200 institutions a year," Mr. Fiechter said. "We were asleep and hadn't anticipated this major shift to state charters."

Thrifts are seeking charter changes to avoid the hefty examination fees charged by OTS, he said.

State thrifts think it is cheaper to be examined by state regulators and the FDIC, which does not charge an explicit fee for its exams.

But Mr. Fiechter said that thinking is not quite right, because FDIC takes its exam costs out of deposit insurance premiums paid by thrifts.

While nearly 200 federal thrifts have left OTS' jurisdiction over the last three years, another through mergers and acquisitions.

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