WASHINGTON — Predicting how many banks will fail in the next few years is quickly becoming a booming business as the economy worsens.

With no official number from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., analysts, investors and others are offering their own predictions — and none of them are very encouraging.

Weiss Research Inc. of Florida said this week that more than 1,500 institutions were at imminent risk of failure — roughly six times the size of the FDIC's "problem" bank list in the fourth quarter.

Wilbur Ross, the famous investor, said there could be as many as 1,000 insolvencies as a result of the housing crisis. Other analysts offer guesses all over the map.

About the only thing they agree on is this: the number of failures — which climbed to 20 on the year with three failures Friday evening — will be extraordinarily high.

"Housing prices are still going down and most likely will continue to go down all year," said Brad Hunter, the chief economist and national director of consulting for Metrostudy, a market research firm based in Houston. "There will be more pressure for writedowns."

Hunter predicts 400 to 500 failures resulting from the downturn, but he said there are still many factors that can affect the final tally. "It depends on what is done with mark-to-market [accounting], and how many voluntary mergers and shotgun weddings there are," he said.

David Zelman, the president of Zelman & Associates, an Ohio firm that provides real estate valuation data for banks, Realtors, regulators and other stakeholders, predicts a figure between 800 and 1,000.

"The net of it is the majority of the exposure of the asset class" most hurt by the crisis "is in small- to medium-sized community and small regional banks," Zelman said.

The one institution not playing this guessing game is the one with the most knowledge: the FDIC. Instead, the agency has offered only a projection of the total cost to the Deposit Insurance Fund, saying collapses will cost $65 billion in the next five years.

Observers said the FDIC's reticence makes sense.

If the agency went public with a failure projection, it "would scare people and start to have the potential for bank runs," Zelman said. "I don't think it's in their interest to do that."

Hunter agreed.

"I don't think the FDIC necessarily should, because they're a policy organization," he said. "What they do, the way they comport themselves, and the level of pressure they exert at any given institution could determine the pace" of failures.

While the private estimates are high, they are not completely out of line with the pace of failures during the savings and loan crisis. From 1987 to 1990, 1,648 institutions were closed, with the largest tally, 534, coming in 1989.

But the estimates — and how they are calculated — of how the recent downturn will affect failures are still varied.

Ross, the chief executive of W.L. Ross & Co., said he includes recipients of the Troubled Asset Relief Program in his projections because "conceptually, if a guy needed all that Tarp money, that means he couldn't make it on his own."

"Counting them in, which is a couple hundred, I would think it comes to something approaching 1,000," he said.

Still, Ross said he could not give a more definite number of institutions the FDIC will have to take over, "because I don't know how far Tarp will go."

Ron Glancz, a partner at Venable LLP and a former FDIC assistant general counsel, said it used to be easier to predict the failure toll.

Now, the impact of the federal government's bailout may narrow the final count, and the economic cycle is always in motion.

"I just don't think that, given where we are today, that you can actually predict in any kind of certainty what the number is going to be," he said.

"It was easier years ago. There are a number of programs that the FDIC, Treasury and the Federal Reserve Board have put in place that I think may in fact prevent bank failures. We're not sure when the economy is going to turn around. Some people say it will in 2010. But what if it turns around at the end of the year? That will prevent bank failures."

Glancz said the FDIC must manage "a balance between transparency and the need to be accurate and not to alarm the public."

"The bottom line is I don't think it's as easy to predict bank failures as it was years ago," he said. "Secondly, there is a question of whether by saying it, you make it so. … That's the concern I would have in terms of numbers."

Robert Hartheimer, a former FDIC director of resolutions, said the variance of these predictions is understandable.

"Everyone has a different view of where the economy is going and the value of banking assets and in particular commercial real estate values," said Hartheimer, now a special adviser to Promontory Financial Group LLC.

"I'm not sure anyone is incorrect, but since it's an estimate, it really depends on the assumptions that are being used from one source to another."

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