While all banks and thrifts are facing difficulties today that exceed any witnessed since the Great Depression, minority-owned banks appear to have even rougher now to hoe.

A basic problem minority banks face is that the need for them has eroded markedly in the past decade or so.

It was one thing to charter a bank just for women, blacks, or Hispanics back when the mainstream banks were pretty narrow in their lending focus and job opportunities for minority group members were exceedingly limited. It is another matter now, when banks are honestly trying to be gender-blind and color-blind.

Expanded Opportunity

As if this were not enough of a threat to the prospects of minority-owned banks, we find that today they have definite weaknesses that are becoming more and more difficult to overcome. These include the following:

* Capital needs. Most banks need capital today, but minority-owned banks, usually founded by less wealthy groups in our society, have an even harder than normal task raising capital.

* Loan demand. Quality loans in many of the nation's newer banks stem from the directors who established the banks and then sent business their way to help them prosper. Studies have found the de novo banks that succeed are usually those with strong support from their own directors, while those without such sponsorship have a much more difficult time.

The fact that minority banks are generally sponsored by less affluent people than support other new banks lessens this advantageous loan demand.

* Deposits. A similar situation exists with regard to deposits. De novo banks count on the deposits of their sponsors for growth, and minority banks generally have less affluent sponsors.

On top of this, the notorious failure of Freedom National Bank -- the long-established minority-owned bank in New York City -- and the loss of funds experienced by those who had more than $100,000 on deposits there has made people wary of keeping large deposits in other minority banks.

Corporate and charity-group treasurers may be wary, too. They could be criticized for not having all their money in larger institutions that have been deemed "too big to fail".

* The marketing dilemma. As if all this were not enough, many individuals who otherwise might use a minority bank do not simply because they perceive a stigma attached to having their deposits in such an institution. This, for example, prompted many men to avoid using so-called "women's banks" until their names were changed to more generic monikers.

* Cost control. Many minority banks have had excessively high costs of doing business. Many have offices in high-crime areas, and customers have used them as de facto deposit vaults -- putting in the week's paycheck and then drawing a little each day or so. These depositors got safety at tremendous lobby costs to the bank.

Some Scenarios

Combine those forces in an environment in which every bank is facing troubled times, and minority banks appear to be among the hardest hit.

What is likely to happen?

Some are bound to go under, just as Freedom National did and as many mainstream banks have done recently. And some may be taken over by larger banks -- especially if they have trading areas with good potential and a solid customer base.

But most will survive independently because they are viable institutions and because mainstream banks will continue to support them with money and even talent when needed.

Symbols of Neglect

As far as the economy is concerned, minority-owned banks have not been a major source of credit because of the basic weaknesses mentioned above. Rather, most minority institutions have had to be more conservative than other banks because they do not have the resources to fall back on if marginal or experimental loans fail.

But minority-owned banks remind us that they were established to fill a gap that many mainstream banks left open. By their very existence, they warn the rest of the industry, lawmakers, and the public that such a gap should never be allowed to developed again.

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