WASHINGTON -- Just days away from a vote on raising the deposit insurance premium, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. made two disclosures Wednesday that bolster the case against a premium increase.

The nation's insured commercial banks earned $7.9 billion in the second quarter, the FDIC said. It was the industry's second consecutive quarterly earnings record.

And the agency also reported that the deficit in the Bank Insurance Fund had shrunk since Dec. 31 by $1.5 billion, or 21%, to $5.5 billion on June 30.

Industry problems and the insurance fund deficit had led the FDIC to propose a 22% premium increase.

Delay Favors Opponents

A vote by the FDIC board, scheduled for Sept. 1, was postponed until next Tuesday, giving opponents more time to argue that the proposed increase would be excessive and would crimp the industry's profitability.

"We think the numbers that came out today show that they were too pessimistic," said Edward Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "There is no justification now for raising the premiums."

While FDIC was able to cut the insurance fund's deficit, the agency stressed that its first-half expenses totaled $3.3 billion, while premium income only came to $2.8 billion.

Andrew C. Hove Jr., acting FDIC chairman, insisted that the BIF needs to built up a cash cushion with the higher premiums.

"The fact remains that premiums still are not covering expenses," he said. "Isn't that a better time to charge a premium, when you're making money?"

"We need a period of time where our premium income is actually greater than our assessments," Mr. Hove said. "We've got to cover our losses and then we've got to built the fund back up."

The FDIC board, down to four members, from five, since the death last month of Chairman William Taylor, might deadlock on a premium-increase vote.

Good News

The agency's quarterly report of industry profits was full of good news. Aside from aggregate net income of $7.9 billion, about $300 million better than the first-quarter mark and a 72% improvement from 1991's second quarter, the number of banks on the FDIC's problem list declined to 956, from 981 at March 31 and 1,016 at yearend 1991.

Notably, assets held by commercial banks on the problem list totaled $494 billion, down from $535 billion in the first quarter and $528 billion at the end of last year.

The industry's six-month earnings rose to $15.7 billion, from $10.2 billion in the first half of 1991. (The six-month figure is greater than the sum of the two quarters because of merger accounting.)

Record Improvement

Equity capital shot up $9.3 billion, to $248.5 billion, in the second quarter -- the biggest quarterly increase ever. The industry's equity-to-assets ratio was 7.23% at midyear, the highest in 26 years.

Among other highlights of the report:

* Troubled assets dipped below $100 billion for the first time since yearend 1990 as problem loans fell $3.3 billion, to $99.7 billion in the second quarter of 1991.

* Loan-loss reserves in the second quarter totaled $6.3 billion, about one-third less than the reserves taken in the second

This reduction accounted for a big chunk of the year-over-year earnings increase, the FDIC said.

The agency credited low interest rates for much of the industry's success. The second quarter was the fifth in a row in which the spread widened between the rates paid on deposits and the yield on loans.

The industry also shrank for the sixth consecutive quarter. Loans were off $3.8 billion in the second quarter, to $2.07 trillion. Since the end of the 1990, total loans and leases at commercial banks have dropped by $77.4 billion, or 3.7%.

Healthier ROAs

Industrywide return on assets hit 0.94% in the second quarter, the highest level since banks began reporting quarterly income in 1983.

ROA was highest at banks in the Midwest - 1.27% - and lowest in the West and Northeast, each just above 0.75%.

Earnings improved at western banks as troubled assets fell, the FDIC said. But the agency warned that the positive news there could be "attributable to the accounting treatment of several large bank mergers."

Banks under $100 million in assets had the highest return on assets, 1.13%, and banks with more than $10 billion in assets had the lowest, 0.74%.

Annual Profit Record in Sight

The FDIC said industry earnings this year are likely to eclipse the annual record of $24.9 billion set in 1988.

But the agency threw up some red flags, particularly the fact that banks still hold $393 billion in commercial real estate loans.

The FDIC also said the industry's shrinking loan portfolio "does not bode well for net interest margins if interest rates rise."

Banks' collective decision to buy longer-maturity investment securities rather than make new loans may increase interest-rate risk, the FDIC said.

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