Several of the country's largest banking companies lack the capital to follow First Chicago Corp. and Fleet Financial Group in aggressively writing down their real estate portfolios, according to stock analyst George Salem.
Mr. Salem of Prudential Securities singled out BankAmerica Corp., Chase Manhattan Corp., Citicorp, and Wells Fargo & Co. as most likely to suffer "negative earnings surprises" because of large amounts of delinquent commercial real estate loans and subpar loss reserves.
In contrast to First Chicago and Fleet, which last quarter wrote down $2.6 billion in loans to about 50% of their original value in order to speed a sale, the four bigger companies face "a long-drawn-out situation with a good chance for negative surprises such as further loan writedowns and higher reserves," Mr. Salem said.
Wide Range of Exposures
Among the four companies he cited, the ratio of nonperforming real estate assets to common equity at the end of June ranged from 93% at Citicorp down to 31% at BankAmerica.
BankAmerica and Wells Fargo had higher levels of loan-loss reserves to total nonperforming assets on June 30 than did Citicorp or Chase. But the California-based banking companies face further potential problems from their home state's faltering economy, said Mr. Salem.
Because of the uncertain volume of investor demand for distressed real estate assets, the first companies that aggressively write down their assets gain an advantage over latecomers in cleaning up balance sheets, analysts said.
The result at companies like Citicorp and Chase will be to eat up management time and increase carrying costs of assets that cannot quickly be written down, said John Leonard, banking analyst at Salomon Brothers.
Dissent on BankAmerica
But Mr. Leonard takes a more optimistic view of BankAmerica than Mr. Salem, saying it "is clearly in a capital position to take any real estate $(disposition$) strategy which makes sense."
BankAmerica is expected to tell analysts this month of its progress in spinning off delinquent real estate loans into a "bad bank."
Chase is unlikely to try to sell its problem real estate assets in bulk, vice chairman Richard Boyle said recently.
Investors expect larger reserves at banks that cannot remove significant amounts of real estate from their balance sheets, said James Rosenberg, banking analyst at Shearson Lehman Brothers, and this has a dampening effect on earnings.
Effect on Profit Expectations
Dramatic writedowns like those at First Chicago and Fleet can give a big lift to earnings expectations by reducing the reserve levels expected by investors, said Mr. Rosenberg.
The analysis of commercial real estate exposure by Mr. Salem took into account banks' total real estate exposures, levels of delinquent loans, trends in property-loan delinquency levels, reserve adequacy, type and location of real estate, history of writedowns, and banks' overall credit cultures.
First Chicago created a stir when it opted to take a $625 million charge in the third quarter to write down $2.1 billion of real estate loans.
Fleet, based in Providence, R.I., announced plans last month to unload $500 million of New England commercial and real estate loans.