WASHINGTON - The thrift industry continued its steady course in the first quarter, with profitability up slightly from 1994, the Office of Thrift Supervision reported Tuesday.

But thrift earnings still significantly trail those of banks, and the number of troubled savings institutions went up in the first quarter of 1995 for the first time since 1990.

"Thrift profitability both in return on assets and return on equity is about half the banking industry's," said OTS acting director Jonathan Fiechter. That could get worse if the looming disparity in Bank Insurance Fund and Savings Association Insurance Fund premiums isn't resolved, Mr. Fiechter added.

"You have a stable industry now," said Robert Davis, director of economics and research for America's Community Bankers, the thrift trade association. "You don't have robust industry that would be capable of sustaining a large deposit insurance premium differential."

The net income for the 1,152 OTS-regulated savings institutions totaled $1.18 billion for the first quarter.

That made for an annualized return on average assets of 0.61% and return on average equity of 8.12%. Those figures are up from O.56% and 7.36% in 1994, but compared with 1992 and 1993, return on assets is flat and return on equity is down.

Equivalent first-quarter figures for commercial banks won't be out until next week, but in 1994 bank return on assets was 1.15% and return on equity 14.63%.

"That's the issue it comes down to in BIF/SAIF; you still have a significant difference," said industry consultant Bert Ely. Mr. Ely added, however, that overcapitalization, not low earnings, is to blame for some thrifts' low return on equity.

Savings institutions' average leverage capital ratio in March was 7.08%, and the average risk-based capital ratio was 14.7%. Both figures are down slightly from December.

Thrift deposits, meanwhile, are up, from $546.27 billion in December to $553.23 billion in March.

The number of problem thrifts - those with Camel ratings of 4 or 5 - went to 57 in March from 53 in December. The assets of problem thrifts rose to $32 billion from $30 billion.

"I am projecting at this stage a fairly steady state," Mr. Fiechter said. "We have a core of problem institutions. The problem tends to be that they have capital but a lot of difficulty generating income."

Only 10 thrifts, with total assets of $4.62 billion, are considered by the OTS to be undercapitalized. Just 105 thrifts, or 7% of the industry, were unprofitable in the first quarter of 1994.

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