Fleet Financial Group said Thursday it would pay up to $115 million to settle charges of unfair lending brought against it by Georgia's attorney general and the governor's Office of Consumer Affairs.
At the same time, Fleet said it had settled some related litigation brought by other parties on Georgia involving high-interest loans made by Fleet's consumer finance subsidiary.
"We believe this should finally put this issue behind us," said Michael R. Zucchini, one of Fleet's three vice chairman.
Fleet's stock rose 62.5 cents on Thursday to $32.25 on news of the settlement, which was expected after general outlines of the deal first emerged last month in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.
Profits Won't Be Affected
Fleet, which is based in Providence, R.I., said it was already fully reserved for the settlement, which will have no impact on its fourth-quarter numbers. Fleet, with $47 billion in assets, maintains a $1 billion loan-loss reserve covering 180% of nonperforming loans.
"From a financial viewpoint, there's no significant impact," said analyst Michael L. Mayo, with UBS Securities in New York. "From a strategic viewpoint, this is a significant event because it lifts a cloud that's been hanging over the entire company for more than a year."
UBS Securities estimates that Fleet Financial Inc., the unit responsible for buying up high-interest loans made in mostly poor, black communities, lost $8 million in 1992.
Fleet executives told analysts Thursday that it expects this troubled subsidiary will recover its profitability by the first quarter. They said Fleet Finance should regain historical annual profit levels of $40 million to $45 million within the next two years.
Fleet's problems in Georgia began in the late 1980s, when its Atlanta-based consumer finance subsidiary purchased high-interest home equity loans from small finance companies.
Consumer activists have charged that the loans, mostly made to low-income people in depressed areas, were usurious and constituted abusive lending practices. A "60 Minutes" television report on the controversy in the fall of 1992 was considered particularly damaging to Fleet's public image.
The Georgia Supreme Court in June ruled that Fleet had not violated the state's usury laws. But Attorney General Michael J. Bowers proceeded with an investigation of possible violations of Georgia's Fair Business Practices Act, a consumer protection law.
Mr. Bowers said in an interview Thursday that Fleet settled the case outside the courtroom after his department found three violations of the statute: excessively high interest rates, excessive discount points, and a failure to adequately inform borrowers of the methods used to calculate the interest rates.
"After we got into it and discussed it with them, we made it clear that we thought there were violations and then we undertook to settle through negotiation rather than litigation," Mr. Bowers said.
Mr. Bowers said 32% of the loans in question were originated by Fleet and 68% by companies that sold loans to Fleet. The Settlement At a Glance Under an agreement withGeorgia officials, Fleet will:* Invest $70 million in low-incoe housing loan programs* Provide up to $30 million in refundss to aggrieved borrowers* Increase by $2 million, to $10 million, its commitment to help low-income residents displaced by construction of a stadium for the 1996 Summer Olympics* Pay the state $2.75 million as additional compensation and to cover investigation costs