For the second month in a row, we are scrambling to revise a story about a great local business that has been harder hit than expected by the continuing recession.
Last month it was Pendleton Woolen Mills, a 100-year old Oregon icon that surprised us by announcing that 45 employees would be laid off as we were preparing to put our August issue to bed. This month it’s a local bank to be named later that has been dealing with hard-nosed FDIC regulators scouring through every record, email and report they could unearth. My conversations with the CEO went from fascinating to ominous over the course of the past several weeks, and we agreed that running a story before the matter is clarified with a formal FDIC report would be unwise for the magazine as well as the bank.
Both of these stories were slotted for our Tactics page, where we explore a company and its leaders, what they are facing and how they are proceeding and why. I’m a big fan of the page, because it strives to dig deeper than the usual business profile by shaving off the fluff and honing in on what is crucial. Unfortunately, more and more of these pieces are reflecting the harsh reality that for many businesses, the over-riding goal for 2009 is simply to remain in business. Our research editor Brandon Sawyer quipped the other day that maybe we should rename the page Survival Tactics.
This recession is nowhere near over, and it will not end until the banks have cleaned up their books. This is far easier said than done. That’s why I used the word ominous earlier to describe my recent discussion with the banker. He was in the room last week when senior FDIC officials met with top executives from a dozen local banks, and he said even the institutions he had thought were doing fine have weaknesses, and others “seem to have exhausted their capabilities.”
The last thing Oregon needs is another bank failure. The FDIC acted aggressively earlier this year to shut down Pinnacle Bank, Bank of Clark County and Silver Falls Bank, and the aftershocks continue to rattle the economy. Since then months have passed without a local failure, even as local banks report continued losses. Unfortunately, the FDIC has bailed out enough banks that it needs money to replenish its fund, and the easiest way to bring in more capital is by downgrading banks. The lower a bank’s rating, the more it has to pay to the FDIC. I’ve also noticed that bank failures tend to come in geographic clumps. On July 2 the FDIC seized six banks in Illinois. On July 24 the agency shut down six banks in Georgia. Time will tell whether Oregon will manage to sidestep a similar massacre.
Regional banks have not crashed and burned as magnificently as the Bear Stearns and Lehman Brothers of the world, but they did follow the money into Portland condos, Bend subdivisions and rural ethanol plants. Now they are left with nonperforming loans that the FDIC will not allow them to hide. They are employing every tactic available to them to keep their doors open and to continue lending if possible. No one should underestimate the gravity of the challenges they still face.