After flying under the radar for much of the recession, the Pacific Northwest has been hit with a string of failures — and more choppiness lies ahead.
Banks in Washington and Oregon have grappled with souring construction loans for some time, yet the troubles intensified later than in other regions, and regulators who have been preoccupied elsewhere are playing catch-up.
The problems facing most struggling banks in the area resemble those of banks in Florida, Georgia, Arizona and Nevada.
"You've just read more about some of these other markets, but in fact the Pacific Northwest is right there with the Southeast in terms of what's happened in some of the more stressed markets there," said Joseph Fenech, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP.
Eight banks in Washington and Oregon have failed this year, compared with seven failures in those states and Idaho in all of 2009, and industry observers expect to see plenty more.
Foresight Analytics LLC has put 24 Washington banks — more than a quarter of all banks in the state — on its watch list for troubled institutions as of June 18, and it expects that eight more banks will fail this year. The watch list includes seven of Oregon's 36 banks — one is expected to fail — and four of the 18 banks in Idaho. Foresight does not expect any failures in Idaho this year.
Data from the Washington State Department of Financial Institutions jibes with Foresight's assessment: at least 22 Washington banks are operating under supervisory agreements with state or federal regulators.
"It's a pretty serious problem, and it's actually still very much at its apex right now," William Longbrake, an executive in residence at the University of Maryland, as well as a former vice chairman of Washington Mutual and former director at First Savings Bank Northwest in Renton, Wash., said in an interview. "It's not diminishing."
The main problem: widespread and heavy concentrations of construction and development loans that fell apart when the housing bubble burst in the Pacific Northwest, about 12 months after that occurred in other parts of the country. The region's economy — in good times or bad — tends to trail the rest of the country, and signs of stress showed up much later. That could mean the recovery will take longer as well.
"There's still a ways to go, and there's still a lot of assets and institutions that need to be addressed," said Brett Rabatin, an analyst with Sterne, Agee & Leach Inc.
At their peak, many Pacific Northwest banks had more than a third of their loan portfolios concentrated in construction and development amid growing demand for retirement and vacation homes, said Matthew T. Clark, an analyst at KBW Inc.'s Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. "When the music stopped, it got ugly," Clark said. "And everybody basically wished they had zero exposure to construction."
Most of the failures in the region have been larger players, yet only a handful of the remaining troubled banks have assets of more than $1 billion. Of the 24 Washington banks on Foresight's watch list, half have assets of less than $500 million.
"I think the regulators are dealing with the biggest problems first," said Timothy Coffey, an analyst with FIG Partners LLC. "The regulators will give the banks as long as possible to raise capital."
Until recently, regulators had devoted more attention to other regions. Since the start of the crisis, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has opened two temporary satellite offices in Irvine, Calif., and Jacksonville to address a growing number of failed banks in those areas, and the agency is set to open another satellite office just outside Chicago in July.
As of April 12, the FDIC had added nearly 200 employees to its division of resolutions and receiverships this year. A spokesman would not say whether the agency is devoting extra attention to the Pacific Northwest these days, or whether the agency is anticipating more failures there. But he said there are no plans to open a satellite office in Washington or Oregon. The satellite office in Irvine oversees failures in those states after they go into receivership.
Meanwhile, the recent failures in the region and those anticipated are creating opportunities for healthy companies such as Umpqua Holdings Corp. in Portland, Ore., which picked up its fourth failed bank, in northern Nevada, on Friday.
The $10.5 billion-asset company raised $303 million in the first quarter, paid back an investment through the Troubled Asset Relief Program and leveraged the excess capital to acquire two more failed banks. On March 31, Umpqua had a total risk-based capital ratio of 17.8%, and was "actively engaged" in pursuing more failed-bank opportunities, said Ron Farnsworth, its chief financial officer. "These are all tailwinds for next year and the year after as the economy recovers, so we're not playing catch-up at that point in time," he said.
Melanie Dressel, the chief executive of Columbia Banking System in Tacoma, which acquired two failed banks in January, said Columbia hopes to expand market share by picking up disenfranchised customers of other failed banks, many of which had been around for decades.
Dressel said she is also optimistic that the region could see regular acquisitions sooner than some expect as the economy improves. The region's housing market appears to have begun stabilizing, she said, and growth in consumer spending could help the trade-dependent state. "We definitely got into the recession later," she said. "I'm not as convinced, though, that it will mean that we're going to lag getting out of this economic downturn."