Bank profits hit a record $48.8 billion in 1995, up 9.4% from the previous year, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. reported Thursday.

Fourth-quarter profits were $12.1 billion, up 13.1% from a year before but down 12% from the record-breaking third quarter.

Although she noted some warning signs in consumer loan chargeoffs, FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer said banks are extremely healthy. "I don't see any reason to believe their earnings will not continue to be strong," she added.

Commercial banks' return on average assets was 1.17% in 1995, up from 1.15% in 1994 but down from the record 1.20% in 1993. Before 1993, the industry's annual ROA had never broken 1% - at least not since the FDIC began keeping records, in 1934.

Though profits stayed high, the number of insured commercial banks dropped below 10,000 for the first time in FDIC history. The agency credited mergers for the decrease to 9,941 banks at yearend.

Most of the profit increase over 1994 came from net interest income. Interest margins declined, but a 10.4% increase in lending volume helped bring 1995 net interest income to $154 billion, up 5.2% from the year before.

There were some lending problems. Net loan and lease chargeoffs in 1995 totaled $12.2 billion, up 8.2% from 1994 - ending three years of improvement.

But commercial banks got a profit boost from cuts in deposit insurance premiums. In the fourth quarter of 1995, banks paid $1.1 billion less in premiums than they did a year before.

Thrifts insured by the undercapitalized Savings Association Insurance Fund have not been treated to such cuts, and Ms. Helfer said they are starting to move their deposits out of the fund to escape high premiums. SAIF deposits held by thrifts dropped $9.1 billion in the fourth quarter, and Ms. Helfer said almost $6 billion of that decrease was due to two large thrift companies shifting deposits from the thrift fund into the less- expensive Bank Insurance Fund.

Home Savings of America, owned by H.F. Ahmanson & Co., Irwindale, Calif, was allowed to shift $3.3 billion of its deposits from the thrift fund to the bank fund after it sold its New York branches, FDIC staffers said. Meanwhile, Golden West Financial Corp., Oakland Calif., continued its shifting of depositors from SAIF-insured World Savings and Loan Association to BIF-insured World Savings Bank, with about $2.6 billion moving in the fourth quarter.

The overall savings fund assessment base shrank only $600 million in the fourth quarter, however, as increases in bank-owned SAIF deposits made up for the thrift deposit defections. The thrift fund's reserve ratio was 0.47% at yearend, up from 0.43% at the end of the third quarter and 0.28% a year before, but still well below the 1.25% reserve ratio required by law.

Deposit growth at banks, coupled with lower insurance premiums, led to the first drop in years in the bank fund's reserve ratio, from 1.31% on Sept. 30 to 1.30% at yearend.

Ms. Helfer said that without legislation to shore up the thrift fund and end thrifts' incentive to shift deposits to the bank fund, "BIF members will have to pay for the dilution to the fund."

But Jim Chessen, chief economist for the American Bankers Association, said he did not see the fourth-quarter's dip in the reserve ratio as a sign of things to come. "I don't think it portends any huge deposit growth for 1996," he said.

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