WASHINGTON - More than 300 thrift institutions face a deadline Wednesday for writing off 15% of their investments in real estate subsidiaries.

The partial writedown, amounting to $480 million, comes on top of previous hits totaling $800 million as mandated by the 1989 thrift-bailout law, which required a phaseout of real estate development activities.

After Wednesday, another $2.2 billion in real estate subsidiaries at 324 savings and loans will remain to be written off by June 1994.

Those thrifts tend to be large, accounting for $407 billion in assets, or nearly half the industry total. Leaders warn that the drain on earnings and capital could stall their institutions' recovery and hurt the economy.

The Office of Thrift Supervision and thrift industry lobbyists have been trying to buy more time through legislation. They say the writeoffs will weaken capital positions at an inopportune time and force institutions to sell their real estate units at rock-bottom prices.

"The writedown is definitely at the wrong time," said James Butera, an S&L lobbyist. "This is not an industry that has a lot of capital."

Feeling the Pain

Kenneth McLean, a Washington thrift consultant, said the writeoff could have a "substantial effect on earnings. It's a pretty heavy capital hit."

Among states feeling the greatest impact are California, which has 40 institutions that have $1.6 billion in real estate development units still to be written down; Illinois, 26 institutions with $83 million; and Ohio, 21 thrifts with $44 million.

Rep. Doug Barnard Jr., D-Ga., sent a letter last week to House Banking Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez urging support of legislation now in the Senate that would delay the deadline for four months, or another standalone bill that would give S&Ls until Congress adjourns to write down the subsidiaries.

Discretion Urged

The Senate bill that pushes the July 1 deadline to Nov. 1 is designed primarily to overhaul regulation of government-sponsored enterprises like the Federal National Mortgage Association.

Timothy Ryan, director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, has also been urging Congress to water down the real estate writedown provisions in the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act.

He wants discretion to give S&Ls until 1997 to complete the amortizations because there are too few buyers willing to bid on real estate holdings.

"If we give them a little bit of time to get through this, it makes a lot more sense," an OTS official said.

Patrick Forte, president of the Association of Financial Services Holding Companies, said S&Ls will be forced to dump real estate on local markets if relief isn't granted.

"This is a punitive measure," he said. "All we are looking for is more time to get out."

According to a study by Mr. Forte's association, the largest institutions affected by the law include the California giants Home Savings of America, which had written of $288.5 million as of December 1991; First Nationwide Bank, $144.1 million; HomeFed Bank, $65.1 million; and California Federal Bank, $63.6 million.

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