WASHINGTON - A major milestone in the nation's savings and loan debacle was passed Friday when the government sold off the last failed thrift institution in its inventory.

The last, tiny chunk of the $150 billion savings and loan crisis was Newark's Carteret Federal Savings Bank, which failed in December 1992. The Resolution Trust Corp. divided it up and sold the parts to seven institutions Friday.

"This clearly signals that we are nearing the end of this unfortunate chapter in U.S. financial history," said John E. Ryan, acting chief executive officer of the RTC. "This is the first time in a decade that there has not been a thrift under government control."

"I only hope that the lessons that should have been learned from this expensive experience will help avoid similar problems in the future," Mr. Ryan said. Taxpayers are expected to be out $225.3 million because of Carteret's failure alone.

Carteret's sale is the symbolic end of the thrift cleanup, launched by the agency in 1989. It was the 745th thrift the RTC has handled. Together, those thrifts had $489 billion in assets when they failed, and will cost taxpayers an estimated $150 billion.

"It is the end of our nation's savings and loan debacle," said RTC spokesman Stephen J. Katsanos. "We are happy to say the backlog of insolvent S&Ls has finally been eliminated."

Although the last failed thrift has been sold, the agency's work is not yet done. It has $26 billion in assets left to sell - assets the agency was stuck with after selling off the failed institutions.

At the end of June, the RTC is set to stop taking any new failed thrifts. It will stay open until the end of the year, and will then be folded into the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

At the end of this year, the RTC expects have sold all but $8 billion in assets, Mr. Katsanos said.

The RTC won't see any more failed thrifts. Most likely, "any troubled institutions the OTS feels they have to close before the end of June will be closed and sold simultaneously," Mr. Katsanos said.

So Carteret's sale will likely be the RTC's last. "We are truly in the final, mop-up stages," Mr. Katsanos said.

Carteret had $2.1 billion in assets when it failed, and has been sold in three stages.

The RTC sold nine Florida branches in October to three institutions - Commercial Bank of Florida in Miami, Life Savings Bank in Clearwater, Fla., and Hamilton Bank in Miami.

In January, The RTC sold 14 of Carteret's New Jersey branches to five New Jersey institutions - Banco Popular FSB, Midlantic Bank, Investors Savings Bank, United National Bank, and First Savings Bank.

The last branches were sold to: newly chartered Chase Manhattan Bank of New Jersey in Oradell, N.J.; Bank of New York in West Paterson, N.J.; Penn Federal Savings Bank in West Orange, N.J.; Investors Savings Bank in Millburn, N.J.; Provident Savings Bank in Jersey City; Boiling Springs Savings Bank in Rutherford, N.J.; and Trenton Savings Bank in Lawrenceville, N.J.

Carteret's final 16 branches - with $617 million in deposits - were sold at a premium of 11.09% of total deposits, 2% above last year's average premium. "That is a nice premium to have for the last institution in the fold," Mr. Katsanos said.

The acquirers also bought $36 million in assets, along with taking over 76,000 deposit accounts. The RTC is keeping about $2.1 billion in assets, to be sold off separately.

Of the 16 Carteret branches, just 15 will reopen. The River Edge, N.J., branch will remain shut.

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