With consumer loan problems rising, the issue of how much banks should be putting aside to handle losses is likely to get special scrutiny when second-quarter earnings reports arrive in a few weeks.
Last quarter, banks tallied another fine earnings record, but many again did so by skimping on providing reserves against potential loan losses, says analyst Raphael Soifer of Brown Brothers, Harriman & Co.
Indeed, some banks have fattened their earnings for much of the past two years by drawing down reserves. Currently, the banking industry's reserves as a percentage of assets are at the lowest level since 1986, according to figures from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Mr. Soifer and others on Wall Street have growing doubts that the phenomenon can go on much longer. "The issue is how quickly provisions are going to have to rise," he said.
Bankers assert that their reserves are adequate, since asset quality remains high for business loans - the biggest reason for the reserves.
Indeed, net chargeoffs of business loans themselves fell to 0.17% of such loans last year for all banks, according to FDIC data. That contrasts with the peak of 1.63% in the problem year of 1991.
But some analysts, notably George M. Salem of Gerard Klauer Mattison & Co., warn that rising credit card delinquencies - not reflected as nonperforming loans for banks - "can allow reserves to appear stronger than they really are."
Mr. Soifer emphasized that he does not believe banks are under-reserved. Rather, he thinks they have for some time been adding too little to reserves, given asset growth, and thus have overstated earnings.
As a result, he continues to view bank stocks in general as "being relatively expensive and unlikely to outperform in the earnings-driven market environment we currently envision for the remainder of 1996."
The 24 major banks surveyed by Mr. Soifer in his review of first-quarter operating trends effectively withdrew $258 million from their aggregate reserve for credit losses as net loan chargeoffs exceeded loss provisions by 19%, he said.
According to the formula Mr. Soifer uses, big bank earnings were inflated by 10% for the first quarter, meaning the stock prices for some "were much closer to the market multiple than it would otherwise appear."
Mr. Soifer adjusts bank earnings to normalized status by estimating the level of provisions likely to be sustainable over an entire credit cycle.
He assumes losses will amount to 60 basis points (annualized) on average loans, plus 2% of net new loans, adjusted for mergers under purchase accounting rules.
Mr. Soifer also adds the cost of funding and servicing a cyclical average level of nonperforming assets. He assumes costs of 8% yearly on a nonperforming asset ratio of 2.5%
At 12 of the 24 banks studied, provisions were less than net chargeoffs, while nine banks made net additions to reserves and three matched provisions to chargeoffs.
J.P. Morgan & Co., which has a sizable reserve for a relatively small loan portfolio, made no provision in the first quarter. Neither did Wells Fargo & Co., whose reserve is also atypically large, or PNC Bank Corp., Pittsburgh.
Other banks who set aside fewer new reserves than chargeoffs were First Union Corp., whose provision equaled 47% of chargeoffs, Fleet Financial Group at 59%, Chase Manhattan Corp. at 71%, and BankAmerica Corp. at 75%.
On the other hand, SunTrust Banks Inc., Atlanta, reflecting its conservative operating culture, made a sizable net addition to reserves. Its provision equaled 197% of chargeoffs - with chargeoffs themselves a small 0.16% of average loans, annualized.