It's Arthur J. Murton's job to spot the next banking crisis.

At the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., Mr. Murton and his 47-member staff also are responsible for deciding how much to charge individual banks and thrifts for the government's backing.

When she created the division of insurance in late 1995, FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer picked Mr. Murton, an agency researcher, to run it.

Today the division tracks national and regional economic trends with an eye toward avoiding another costly round of bank and thrift failures. (The FDIC spent $36.4 billion on problem institutions from 1980 through 1994.)

"We are trying to focus on how these economic trends bear on banks and the risks they face," Mr. Murton said.

Mr. Murton has paired a senior analyst-generally a former examiner who understands banks inside and out-with an economist in each of the agency's eight regional offices. These teams arm FDIC examiners with quarterly reports on conditions in their part of the country-including consumer credit delinquency, bankruptcy rates, and housing starts-and their potential impact on asset and credit quality.

Examiners in the FDIC's Chicago office were the first to receive the tailored analysis early this year, and reaction to the prototype was so positive that outlooks were sent to examiners in the other seven regions in mid-February-three months ahead of schedule.

Sometime during the second half, the FDIC will start making the reports available to the public.

Each report contains information that applies to the entire country as well as material tailored for each region. For instance, the first reports all included an article on consumer bankruptcy trends. But examiners in the Atlanta, Memphis, and San Francisco regions were informed that bankruptcy rates in their states were rising more steeply, while examiners in Dallas and New York read that their bankruptcy rates were increasing moderately.

The report prepared for the Memphis region also explored whether gambling in Louisiana and Mississippi contributes to the bankruptcy filings in the area, which are running higher per capita than anywhere else.

Credit scoring as well as retail and multifamily housing developments may be investigated in coming issues, according to Mr. Murton.

Ultimately, Mr. Murton aims to dig even deeper by providing local information for the FDIC's 93 field offices.

Among his other projects: By yearend Mr. Murton plans to develop a way to expand the matrix the agency uses to set bank and thrift premium rates. Though the rate is supposed to be based on how much risk an institution poses, right now more than 95% of all banks and 90% of all thrifts qualify for the lowest rate, zero.

The matrix scores an institution's capital reserves against its supervisory ratings. Changes could include subdividing the three existing supervisory categories or adding variables such as the level of nonperforming loans, strength of earnings, or debt ratings.

The insurance division also is teaming up with FDIC researchers to invent a formula that projects losses to the insurance funds under various economic scenarios. For instance, FDIC officials want to be able to predict how many banks might fail in a hypothetical recession, how much those banks would hold in assets, and the cost of rescuing them. Obstacles include finding the right data and deciding which economic variables drive bank performance.

Some skeptics questioned the need for the insurance division when it was launched. Since other units of the FDIC are being scaled back, the insurance division's expansion generated tension. Questions arose within the agency on whether the insurance and research divisions are redundant.

The insurance division is losing its biggest ally, as Ms. Helfer has resigned and plans to leave by June 1. But Mr. Murton, who at 40 has logged 11 years at the agency, said he is not worried.

"This year we are going to make a lot of progress," he said.

"I hope by 1998 people are saying, 'Why didn't we do this before?'"

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