WASHINGTON - Setting a record, thrift earnings rose 27% to $1.58 billion in the third quarter, the Office of Thrift Supervision reported Wednesday.

But the thrift regulator said the sharp increase over previous quarters was due mostly to profits from Home Savings of America's $670 million sale of its New York branches - not a rise in operating income.

The average annualized return on assets for the 1,460 savings institutions regulated by the OTS was 0.82% in the quarter, but agency officials pegged the actual return at 0.70%. That total includes one-time gains, which generated an increase of 0.12%.

The 0.70% ROA is up from 0.65% a year before, but identical to this year's second-quarter ROA.

Still, acting OTS director Jonathan Fiechter said the industry's ability to keep profits steady in the face of shrinking interest rate spreads shows that it has become far less susceptible to the kind of rate shifts that set off the thrift crisis of the 1980s.

"One of the primary tools they've used to stabilize earnings is to increase the number of adjustable-rate mortgages in their portfolios," he said. "The result is far less volatility in thrift net interest margins."

The share of adjustable-rate loans in thrift mortgage portfolios hit a record 65.7% in the third quarter. As a result, while the yield spread between one-year Treasury bills and 10-year Treasury bonds plummeted from 329 basis points in 1992 to 58 in the third quarter, the difference between thrifts' interest income and interest expense declined only slightly, from a high of 306 basis points in the second quarter of 1993 to 266 basis points on Sept. 30.

This is a big contrast from the situation in the early 1980s, when a sharp increase in short-term interest rates left thrifts paying depositors more interest than they received from borrowers.

Mr. Fiechter said he expected industry earnings to stay strong in 1996 - barring a congressional decision to strip powers from savings institutions if the thrift and national bank charters are combined.

Capital is also high, as the industry prepares to pay a fee of 80 basis points to capitalize the Savings Association Insurance Fund. Thrifts' average leverage ratio was 7.38% as of Sept. 30, and their risk-based capital ratio was 15.07%. Both are record highs.

Only six thrifts, with total assets of $1.2 billion, had leverage ratios below the 4% "adequately capitalized" minimum as of Sept. 30, down from 13 institutions a year before. Forty-nine thrifts, with total assets of $13 billion, received a Camel rating of 4 or 5 in their most recent exam, down from 61, with assets of $47 billion, a year before.

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