WASHINGTON — Reserves in the Deposit Insurance Fund fell 45% during the fourth quarter, to $18.9 billion — their lowest level in 16 years, the government said Thursday.

The rapid decline is expected to push the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to charge a special assessment on the entire banking industry when it meets today to set new premium rates.

The agency's Quarterly Banking Profile said it set aside $22 billion for actual and anticipated failures — double what it set aside in the third quarter. The number of institutions on the list of problem banks jumped by 81, to 252, and troubled assets ballooned 37%, to $159 billion.

FDIC officials, according to sources, think the agency must take aggressive action to restore the fund quickly, before it is exhausted.

FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair declined to comment on word of a special assessment, first reported by American Banker, but called on banks to temporarily suspend or reduce dividends while emphasizing the need for a strong Deposit Insurance Fund.

"We will act to assure that our industry-funded reserves are adequate to cover our projected losses," Ms. Bair said. Premiums might be painful, but deposit insurance "is a really good bargain right now," she said.

The FDIC said that the DIF's ratio of reserves to insured deposits fell 36 basis points, to 0.40%, in the fourth quarter — its lowest point since 1993. Though banks are currently paying 12 to 14 cents per $100 of domestic deposits, FDIC staff members are expected to recommend an additional special assessment charge at a meeting today to discuss second-quarter premium rates.

A final figure has not been decided on — and the FDIC board could alter the number — but estimates continue to drift upward. On Wednesday, sources said it could be a 14- to 16-basis-point special fee. On Thursday, some said it could be even higher, such as 17 basis points or more.

A 17-basis-point premium would come to roughly $13 billion in premiums, according to Bert Ely, an industry analyst in Alexandria, Va.

Ms. Bair acknowledged that the agency and industry were in rough waters.

"There is no question that this is one of the most difficult periods we have encountered during the FDIC's 75 years of operation," she said.

The FDIC said the industry lost $26 billion in the fourth quarter, the first quarterly loss since 1990 and the largest since the agency began keeping the data 25 years ago.

The loss was a dramatic turnaround from the $575 million profit reported in the year-earlier period. Four large institutions accounted for half of the total loss, but the FDIC said the industry's troubles are clearly widespread.

Banks and thrifts had a negative return on assets of 0.77%, the worst showing since the second quarter of 1987. The industry's income for 2008 was $16 billion, the lowest since 1990.

As in previous quarters, the pressure on earnings was tied mostly to a high level of loss provisions. The industry set aside $69.3 billion to cover bad loans in the quarter, more than two times the year-earlier provisioning. Fourth-quarter provisions represented over half — 50.2% — of net operating revenue. Provisions have not absorbed so much since the second quarter of 1987, when the proportion was 53.2%.

While large banks accounted for a large proportion of losses, the FDIC also reported distress in the community bank sector. Nearly 32% of those institutions reported a net quarterly loss.

Though net interest income rose 4.9% from a year earlier, to $97 billion, and the average net interest margin increased 2 basis points, to 3.34%, the agency said improvement was "confined mostly to larger institutions."

The FDIC report also found high levels of chargeoffs and noncurrent loans.

The amount of noncurrent loans and leases rose sharply in the fourth quarter: by 24%, to $230.7 billion — more than double their level a year earlier. More than two-thirds of that increase was for loans tied to real estate.

Noncurrent residential mortgages rose 24.1%, while noncurrent commercial and industrial loans rose 43%, the FDIC said. At yearend, the percentage of loans and leases that were noncurrent stood at 2.93, the highest since the end of 1992.

Net chargeoffs more than doubled from the fourth quarter of 2007, rising 132% to $37.9 billion. The annualized quarterly net chargeoff rate was 1.91%, matching the highest level in the 25 years institutions have reported such data.

Chargeoffs in all major loan categories increased from a year ago, with real estate loans accounting for roughly 65% of the total increase.

Total equity capital fell for a third consecutive quarter, by 0.3%. A $39.4 billion decline in goodwill and a $16.1 billion reduction in other comprehensive income were the main reasons for the decline.

In contrast, regulatory capital, which does not include goodwill and is not affected by unrealized losses on securities, increased. Tier 1 leverage capital rose 2.3%, to $1 trillion at yearend. Total regulatory capital rose 2.2%, to $1.28 trillion.

Total assets of insured institutions rose 1.8%, or $250.7 billion, in the fourth quarter. The growth was driven by a $341.7 billion increase in balances with Federal Reserve banks. While 1,069 banks reported increases in reserve balances during the quarter, five banks accounted for more than half of the entire industry increase, the FDIC said. Net loans and leases fell by $130.6 billion as several large institutions restructured portfolios. Three large banks accounted for all of that decline, the FDIC said — most institutions' loan balances grew during the fourth quarter.

Total industry deposits rose 3.5%, to $9 trillion, the biggest quarterly percentage increase in 10 years. Meanwhile, Federal Home Loan bank advances fell 13.6%, to $787 billion. Brokered funds jumped 15.3%, to $765 billion, the largest quarterly increase in more than eight years.

The FDIC has proposed charging higher premiums for institutions with excessive concentrations of brokered deposits and Home Loan bank advances.

For the first time, the agency also detailed the response to its new liquidity programs designed to help stabilize the banking sector.

On a voluntary basis, banks can agree to let the FDIC insure an unlimited amount of no-interest deposits. According to the FDIC, there were $814.4 billion in such funds — $683.7 billion of which was guaranteed by the agency.

Similarly, the FDIC has allowed institutions to receive government insurance for all senior unsecured debt. It said 64 financial entities — 39 insured institutions and 25 bank and thrift holding companies and nonbank affiliates — had $224 billion in guaranteed debt outstanding at yearend.

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