Widening the rift between minority banks and the Resolution Trust Corp., a group of them claims that the agency is charging unreasonably high prices for loans of failed thrifts.

The minority banks, all seven of which last year bought deposits from the RTC with the expectation of buying matching loans from the agency, say the RTC's prices are as much as 10 basis points above the market rate.

They assert the prices are negating the benefits of an RTC program to help minority banks purchase RTC-controlled institutions in low-income neighborhoods.

"It has been a disaster," said Emma C. Chappell, chief executive of United Bank of Philadelphia, one of the banks involved. "All we wanted was a level playing field, and we don't feel we got it."

United Bank's troubles began last summer, when it bought a $21.5 million-deposit branch from the RTC. The resources that have been poured into that branch - without the income from any loans - have been a "major drain" on United Bank, Ms. Chappell said. The bank had expected to make about $1 million on interest from the loans it had sought as part of the branch deal with the RTC.

Ms. Chappell's 2#1/2-year-old bank was $500,000 in the red last year, primarily because of its inability to afford the loans from the RTC, she said.

The minority bankers said that the loan prices are particularly bewildering because they had initially acquired the RTC-controlled deposits through an agency program designed specifically to assist them.

The program, called the minority loan assistance program, was created last April to enable smaller minority institutions to compete against the larger banks in bidding for branches and thrifts in minority neighborhoods. Among other features, the program provides minority bankers with interim capital assistance, rent-free office space for up to five years, and the option to buy performing assets. More than 25 minority institutions have used the program.

"This program is something of a thorn in their (the RTC's) side," said David C. Lensing of Financial Consultants Inc., a Memphis firm hired by the seven banks. "With their mandate coming to an end, I think the RTC is thinking: Let's just get this over with. But the problem is that with these banks it's critical for them not to be underwater from the get go."

The RTC's attitude "has not been one of support for this program at all," Mr. Lensing said.

Rows over the program are not new. Last summer, minority banks charged the RTC with ignoring the legislation that created the minority assistance program. The RTC countered that its first priority was to maximize the return to the taxpayer, regardless of the ethnic makeup of the bidders.

Nonminority banks have not had the same complaints about the agency's loan pricing, in part because performing assets have generally not been made available to them by the RTC.

"We don't know what methodology they're using," said Virgil Robinson Jr., president and chief executive of minority-owned Dryades Savings Bank in New Orleans, which the RTC sold in September. "But we do think their method is flawed, because it did not take into account the deficiencies of the loans.

"We could buy agency loans" - that is, loans from Fannie Mae or Freddie Mac - "at these prices," he said.

Mr. Robinson said he probably will be buying $43 million to $60 million of the original $70 million loan pool he was offered at 95 cents on the dollar. He believes they're worth around 87 cents on the dollar.

"Each one of these banks bought deposits from the RTC in good faith, believing that they would get the loans at a fair market price," said Scott Lawyer of Financial Consultants Inc. "But they didn't get that, and now they're stuck with just the deposits. This has been an egregious situation, particularly for the banks just trying to get their show off the ground."

For its part, the RTC has offered to compensate the institutions for the lost interest that would have been earned on the loans while the two sides wrangled over the pricing - whether the bankers end up buying the loans or not. This period stretches from 45 days after the deposits were purchased until Dec. 21, 1994.

"There are a lot of different balls we juggle in order to meet Congress' mandate," said Anne Freeman, an RTC spokesperson. "We think the RTC has tried to fulfill its obligations, which means to make sure the taxpayer is taken care of."

Ms. Freeman added that in response to the minority bankers' complaints, the RTC last month hired two independent firms to establish the loan prices that eventually were offered to the banks. The total amount of the loans involved is about $400 million.

Two of the seven banks, Ms. Chappell's United Bank and Douglass Bank of Kansas City, rejected the loan offers outright.

The other five, which were given a Jan. 18 deadline to make their decisions, will likely buy portions of the loan amounts they were originally offered, but will do so "under protest," they said.

The bankers' last chance lies with the General Accounting Office, which is examining the pricing methods used by the RTC as part of its annual audit. If the audit reveals inconsistencies with the pricing, the bankers hope the loan prices will be adjusted. The audit is expected to be reported to Congress in February.

None of the banks realized others were having the same disagreements with the RTC until last fall, when the seven huddled in Memphis with their consultant, Financial Consultants Inc.

In addition to Dryades, United, and Douglass, the seven include Founders National Bank of Los Angeles; Pan American Bank in San Mateo, Calif.; City National Bank of New Jersey, Newark; and Harbor Bank in Baltimore.

The group hired its own outside firm, First Tennessee Capital Assets Group, to price the loans, and then took the numbers to a meeting with the RTC in Washington on Dec. 9. At the meeting, described as "a little chilly" by one of the participants, the RTC refused to allow the bankers to examine its pricing methodology, saying it was proprietary.

First Tennessee had been hired by the RTC itself in the early 1990s to price loans. Nevertheless, the RTC rejected the lower prices, and several days later contacted Financial Consultants with its final offer. The agency also refused the bankers' request to delay its decision until after the GAO audit is completed.

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