NationsBank Corp. made more loans to the energy industry than any other bank in the world last year, according to the trade journal Petroleum Economist. It ranked first in the number of financings, with 152, and in total dollars extended, with $4.1 billion.

Kenneth Cline, American Banker's Atlanta bureau chief recently talked with Samuel J. Atkins 3d, group executive vice president for NationsBank's energy unit in Dallas.

Q.: Why is NationsBank so bullish on energy lending? ATKINS: It's obviously one of the dynamic industries located in the Southwest. But just in general, we've had awfully good experience lending to the energy industry. It demands capital and needs the support of the banking community in addition to other forms of finance.

There were some Texas banks that had problems. But that was primarily from lending to the smaller service and supply and drilling companies - not so much to the exploration companies and the producers of oil and gas. So if it's done right, it can be very attractive lending.

It does require a specialty background to do it successfully, and we've had that history.

Q.: Has your focus changed over the years? ATKINS: It has not changed that much over time.

Traditionally, the banks in the energy area have focused primarily on the major oil companies and independents. But we also have a strong interest in the pipeline companies, and we do some things on the refinery side.

I do think that banks in general are watching concentration levels and would probably limit the total amount any one industry would have.

What's really changed for us is the size and strength of the institution backing our efforts. We were a top-25 bank back when I first started, with [Dallas-based] RepublicBank Corp. in 1970. Now NationsBank is the fourth-largest bank.

Q.: Would approval of NationsBank's recent Federal Reserve application to underwrite corporate debt and equity help your area? ATKINS: That would be a help as far as being an adviser to the energy companies and therefore increasing fee income to the bank.

We're interested in doing two things. We have room on our balance sheet to fund additional debt for the industry. On the other hand, we also have a desire to create additional fee income that doesn't require capital support, so that we can increase our return on capital.

So we're trying to take a multifaceted approach to the industry. Commodity swaps, interest rate swaps, the debt powers that we've applied for, mergers and acquisitions on buying and selling producing properties - all those are services we're trying to provide to the industry.

Q.: What's the outlook for energy prices? ATKINS: They have stabilized in a band of between $18 and $22 a barrel in the last several years. We would anticipate prices would still fluctuate, but not with the magnitude that we saw in the mid-1980s.

Natural gas prices is an area where people are optimistic now. Prices have recently moved up, and activity in that industry will increase as a result.

Q.: NationsBank, Citicorp, Chemical Banking, and Chase Manhattan lead tile ranks of energy lenders, but foreign banks are moving up fast. Why is that? ATKINS: The energy industry is a worldwide industry, and a lot of the things you read now are about the major companies exploring more outside the U.S.

The North Sea is a good example. A lot of the U.K. and European banks weren't as active in energy financing prior to the late 1960s and early 1970s. But as development occurred in the North Sea, they've become much more active.

The other thing you look at is the size of some of those foreign banks. They are large banks with lots of capabilities.

Q.: Do you expect President Clinton's proposed energy tax to have much effect on lenders? ATKINS: I think it will negatively impact the energy industry, but I don't think it will have a negative impact - in the way of losses - on banks.

I also don't think it's a foregone conclusion it's going to be implemented. My understanding is that the President has submitted something and it's already been amended in one of the tax committees.

Three months ago I would have said, "It's coming; you'd better get ready." But I think there's a chance it may not get through.

There are a lot of exemptions talked about and lots of issues about where the collection point will be for the tax.

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