Texas banks' rise from the depths of the oil and gas bust of last decade shows no sign of cresting.

After taking a steep dive during the late 1980s and early 1990s, total assets and net income soared to records at the end of last year, heralding the comeback of an industry that was once a center of regulatory concern.

The previous record for total assets in the state was set in 1985, at the height of the Southwest's energy and real estate boom and just before the economic collapse that led to the failure of 512 banks in a dozen years.

"The whole state of Texas is extremely healthy," said William Strunk, chairman of the Houston investment bank Strunk & Associates, which issued a report on the health of the state's industry.

The recession "kind of fleshed out the (list of) people who shouldn't have been in the banking industry anyway," Mr. Strunk said. "What's left is good, hard-core bankers who know what they're doing."

"We've got a very healthy economy, and the banks are very reflective of that healthy economy," said Byron L. Calcote, senior vice president of Texas State Bank, a subsidiary of $1.3 billion-asset Texas Regional Bancshares, McAllen. "Most bankers believe that the economy is going to remain good, certainly through the next year."

The Strunk report said the state's 891 commercial banks reported total assets at the end of last year of $212.7 billion, topping the 1985 mark. In that year, Texas banks numbered 1,936 and held $209 billion of assets.

Net income also reached an all-time high in 1996, at $2.5 billion.

Banks owned by out-of-state holding companies, which hold 60% of the state's assets, reported an average return on assets of 1.18%, while independent banks yielded 1.28% despite a sizable increase in loan-loss provisions and a record payout in dividends.

"The banking system in Texas has returned to health in a big way and is at an all-time high," Catherine A. Ghiglieri, state banking commissioner, told the Texas Bankers Association in a May 9 speech.

The industry's vibrancy stands in stark contrast to conditions five years ago, at the nadir of the recession.

In 1991, average returns on equity and assets for the state's independent banking companies had declined to just 9.89% and 0.75%, respectively. Meanwhile, nonperforming assets averaged 2.29% of the total, which had dropped to just $169 billion.

The collapse of the industry and subsequent rampant consolidation came after a boom in the early and mid-1980s, led by the oil and gas industry. Strong economic growth and soaring property values hid many bankers' risky loans and costly mistakes, Mr. Strunk said.

That changed sharply in 1986 and 1987, as oil prices fell through the floor, land values plummeted, and Congress changed tax law to eliminate a writeoff for real estate investments.

Since hitting bottom in 1991, total loans and capital at the remaining 760 independent banks have nearly doubled, and the banks have reported significant increases in other areas.

Net income for the independents at the end of last year had risen 155% from five years earlier, to $1.07 billion, while their total assets had grown 64%, to $88.7 billion.

"The lesson we learned of the early '80s serves us well in the '90s," Mr. Calcote said. "We know that the economic cycle is still there. It cannot be ignored."

"There was so much fun and games and funny things going on in this state for a while," Mr. Strunk said. "That's all gone. The economy is still going good in Texas, but it's not the boom it was."

"Everybody just tended to get too lax. Nobody saw the end of things, and when it did come, a lot of good people lost a lot of money," said B.J. Parr, executive vice president of First National Bank of Hughes Springs, a subsidiary of $100 million-asset Chalybeate Springs Corp. "It's not like it was 10 years ago when things were really cutting loose, but it's good."

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.