Add FleetBoston Financial Corp. to the list of banking companies that are dealing with a handful of large loans that have gone sour in recent months.
FleetBoston, which dominates commercial banking in New England, inherited a $270 million loan to Bradlees Inc., a Braintree, Mass., retailer. That loan, arranged by BankBoston in February 1999, was followed by a $20 million credit arranged by FleetBoston in July.
The loan may prove to be a mere blip for FleetBoston, which has gone through the most recent credit troubles relatively unscathed, said some analysts. However, others said Fleets loan portfolio is proving to be riskier than they had thought.
Bradlees filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection on Tuesday, its second bankruptcy filing in five years. Now, analysts said, FleetBoston could be left holding the bag for $11 million outstanding on the debt, in addition to an unknown portion lent by BankBoston Corp., which was acquired by Fleet last year.
Within the past few months, FleetBoston has seen a number of large loans in which it participates grow problematic, including credits to companies such as Owens Corning and Heilig-Meyers, a Virginia furniture retailer. Both companies filed for bankruptcy protection this year.
FleetBoston is also on the roster of 58 U.S. and foreign banking companies that lent a total of $7 billion to Xerox Corp., the former blue-chip company whose financial condition has deteriorated rapidly this year.
FleetBostons exposure to the Xerox loan is about $350 million. That loan is still performing, though Xerox is strapped for cash and may require additional financing.
Though FleetBoston is widely viewed as a conservative lender and an able manager of risk, its participation in these loans has left some observers wondering. I think this reflects that Fleets portfolio is riskier than some have thought, said Harry Milling, an analyst at Morningstar Inc.
A FleetBoston spokesman declined to comment.
The company has not yet been forced, like many other banking companies, to warn about the effects of troubled loans on profits. That is because FleetBoston has fared well at recognizing and anticipating problem loans, writing them down, and cleaning its balance sheet, said Mark Fitzgibbon, an analyst at Sandler ONeill & Partners. For example, FleetBoston accounted for the Owens Corning loss during the third quarter. Most other lenders are waiting until the fourth quarter to account for their losses on the loan, he said.
As a result of the problem loans that have already surfaced, and others to come, however, FleetBoston will probably increase its loan-loss provision this fourth quarter, which will take away from its bottom line and possibly make it fall short of earnings estimates, analysts said.
While analysts anticipate nonperforming assets on the companys balance sheet to rise, some say its stock has already anticipated the trend. Its pretty much baked in to the price of Fleet at this point, A.G. Edwards analyst Diana Yates said. FleetBostons stock rose Wednesday 37.5 cents, or 1.02%, to close at $37.
FleetBoston is not alone in loan losses, of course. According to analysts, a host of other lenders have exposure to the Bradlees loan, including CIT Group, Congress Financial, Foothill Capital, GE Capital, Heller Financial, Jackson National Life, ABN Amros LaSalle Bank, National City Commercial Finance (a unit of Clevelands National City Corp.), and Finova.
The credit line, which was scheduled to expire next Dec. 23, required Bradlees to have a minimum of $50 million available until Jan. 15. Unable to compete with national retailers that have encroached on its home turf and struggling to meet the demands of the loan, Bradlees filed for bankruptcy.
If it gets bankruptcy court approval to do so, Bradlees will shut down its 105 discount stores throughout the Northeast and sell its inventory to a consortium led by Gordon Brothers Retail Partners LLC, based in Boston.
Elsewhere, credit concerns are not limited to consumer retail companies. More than $6 billion of loans to California utility concerns Pacific Gas and Electric and Edison International, arranged mostly by Bank of America Corp. and Chase Manhattan Corp., are on the brink of default. These loans, however, might not be in as much trouble as they appear to be.
While rating agencies threatened to downgrade the securities to junk status, they are holding off in anticipation of help from the government. Some way or another, the State of California will make sure these companies are not insolvent, said Paul Patterson, an analyst at Credit Suisse First Boston.