WASHINGTON - Powered by robust lending, bank profits jumped 3.7% last year to a record $44.7 billion, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reported Wednesday.

The earnings "are really quite astounding," said FDIC Chairman Ricki Tigert Helfer. "These were the highest profits essentially ever."

Separately, Ms. Helfer warned that banks may lose part of their promised deposit insurance premium reduction as thrifts charter banks to escape that industry's high rates. Her remarks, expanding on comments made Tuesday to thrift executives, came in a speech Wednesday to the Exchequer Club.

So far, six large thrifts have said they plan to form new institutions insured by the Bank Insurance Fund. Those "born-again banks," as Ms. Helfer labeled them, hold approximately $80 billion in deposits which would be added to the BIF.

"BIF-insured members have to come up with an additional $1 billion in assessments to cover the growth in insured deposits," Ms. Helfer said. That could add four basis points to banks' insurance premiums for a year, she said.

Bank premiums had been expected to drop from the current average of 24 cents for each $100 of insured deposits to 4 cents.

While banks' annual earnings increased, profits for the fourth quarter dipped to $10.7 billion, down from the third quarter's $11.8 billion and $55 million lower than the year-earlier quarterly earnings.

The FDIC attributed the decline in quarterly profits to a loss of $914 million on sales of securities.

But the drop was overpowered by sizzling loan growth over the course of last year. Loan growth for the year was a record $208.4 billion, eclipsing the previous record annual loan growth of $191.7 billion in 1984.

Loans were up 9.7% in 1994 - the largest annual growth rate in a decade, Ms. Helfer said. Of all major loan categories, only real estate construction and development lending did not grow.

"It is encouraging because we are seeing that profitability in their traditional lines of business - in lending," Ms. Helfer noted. The vast majority - 96% - of banks were profitable last year.

"The big story in terms of the profits is the fact that there has been an increase in loan growth and an increase in profits from the loan growth and a decrease in loan-loss provisioning," she said.

Earnings for the nation's 10,450 commercial banks were helped by a $7.3 billion increase in net interest income and by a $5.9 billion drop in loan- loss provisioning.

Bert Ely, an Alexandria, Va.-based consultant said next year could be even better for banks.

Unless banks are forced to sharply increase their loan-loss provisions, "I see no reason why earnings couldn't be a couple billion dollars higher than they were in 1994," he said.

Bank profits next year could be fueled partly by a sharp drop in the cost of deposit insurance. The FDIC may lower premium rates this autumn because the Bank Insurance Fund is expected to recapitalize in midsummer.

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