Mr. Chairman and members of the Committee, I want to thank you for the opportunity to testify today regarding the July 27, 2001, failure of the Superior Bank, FSB, which was headquartered in Oakbrook Terrace, Illinois. My testimony will address several issues regarding the Superior failure: My theory as to why Superior failed, a review of the regulatory shortcomings that led to this very expensive failure, broader regulatory problems that have been quite evident in some very expensive bank and thrift failures in recent years, and legislative recommendations to at least lessen these problems, if not eliminate them.
Superior, under the Pritzker/Dworman ownership, was created at the end of 1988 as the successor to the failed Lyons Federal Bank, FSB, one of the infamous S&L resolutions that year. Like many other 1988 S&L resolutions, Superior started life with enormous tax benefits and a substantial amount of FSLIC-guaranteed assets. However, Superior could not profit indefinitely from its FSLIC launch -- it had to develop a long-term business strategy. Enter Alliance Funding, Superior's wholesale mortgage origination division, which Superior acquired at the end of 1992. With Alliance on board, Superior became a one-trick pony that was doomed to stumble, fatally, one day, or in this case eight and one-half years later.
Superior's trick, or business plan, was to concentrate on subprime lending, principally on home mortgages, but for a while in auto lending, too. While Superior originated loans as a retail lender in the Chicago area, that is, making loans directly to consumers through its own offices, my sense is that it originated or purchased most of its loans through Alliance, which is headquartered in Orangeburg, New York, outside of New York City in Rockland County. Working from its home office and ten branches around the country, Alliance either purchased loans originated and funded by independent mortgage bankers or it funded in its own name mortgages originated by mortgage bankers and brokers. In effect, Alliance vacuumed up subprime loans, that is of B, C, and D credit quality, across the country for later securitization. It appears that Superior became a dumping ground for low-quality, and possibly predacious, mortgages that brokers could not sell elsewhere. There also are reports that Superior loosened its loan underwriting standards in 1999 to attract additional mortgage business.
I encourage Committee members and their staff to visit the Alliance website, www.allfun.com, to get a full flavor of the types of mortgages Alliance specialized in, including "limited and no credit borrowers," "mortgage down 3 months or foreclosures," "80% LTV for recent discharge from Bankruptcy," "borrowers can't source down payment," "fixed income is grossed up 135%," "full array of options for stated income and limited documentation borrowers," "highest LTVs in the industry for rural properties," "open Chapter 13 Bankruptcies at 75% LTV," "second homes are considered owner-occupied," "second mortgage behind private allowed," and so forth. In addition to mortgages, Superior also engaged in auto lending, most heavily in 1998 and 1999, with a substantial phase-down of that business in 2000. I do not wish to condemn subprime lending in general, but clearly Superior engaged in high-risk lending that ultimately was its downfall.
Briefly, Superior appears to have adopted this business model:
Evidence from Superior's Thrift Financial Reports (TFR), which Superior filed quarterly with the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), supports this theory:
Superior's regulators, and specifically the OTS, failed miserably in their supervision of Superior. Hopefully, the forthcoming inspector general and General Accounting Office reports on the Superior failure will provide a detailed insight into and documentation of these failings. However, even now important conclusions can be drawn from the public record, specifically from Superior's TFRs. My key conclusions are as follows:
A far more egregious reporting incident occurred for the fourth quarter of 2000. Superior's initial TFR for December 31, 2000, reported that it had $255.7 million in capital on the date, for an 11.2 percent leverage capital ratio, which is quite strong. However, sometime this spring, Superior filed an amended TFR showing just $37.9 million of capital, for a capital ratio of just 1.8 percent, which means that Superior was critically undercapitalized at the end of last year. This data may not have been published on the FDIC website until as late as June. Quite possibly, uninsured depositors in Superior were misled by that initial TFR. Over the years, OTS failed badly in ensuring that Superior filed accurate TFRs the first time.
Other measures suggest declining asset quality. For example, unpaid interest on mortgages Superior owned rose from 1.1 percent last September 30 to 4.7 percent on March 31 of this year; the thrift industry average on March 31 was .58 percent. This disparity suggests that Superior was experiencing a substantial increase in delinquencies in its mortgage portfolio. A similar deterioration was observed for loans Superior was servicing for others, which largely consisted of loans it had securitized. Advances by Superior on these loans to pay principal, interest, taxes, and insurance rose steadily, from 1.5 percent at the end of 1999 to 1.9 percent on September 30, 2000, to 2.1 percent at the end of 2000, to 3.0 percent on March 31, 2001, and to 3.2 percent on June 30 of this year. This rising percentage strongly indicates a deterioration in the loans Superior has securitized, which suggests a further impairment in the value of Superior's securitization-related assets.
This unpreparedness is evidenced by the FDIC's decision to continue operating Superior in a conservatorship rather than to immediate sell its branches, its retail deposit franchise, and what few good assets Superior has. However, it is highly unlikely that a single buyer will purchase all of Superior's good assets. Most likely, a Chicago-area depository institution will purchase the Superior branches while a subprime mortgage specialist will purchase Alliance Funding and Superior Servicing, Superior's servicing arm. Although it can never be calculated, the FDIC probably has increased the eventual Superior insolvency loss through its bungling of the Superior closure.
The OTS summed up quite well Superior's numerous shortcomings in a news release it issued on July 27, 2001, the day it closed Superior:
"Superior Bank suffered as a result of its former high-risk business strategy, which was focused on the generation of significant volumes of subprime mortgage and automobile loans for securitization and sale in the secondary market. OTS found that the bank also suffered from poor lending practices, improper record keeping and accounting, and ineffective board and management supervision. Superior became critically undercapitalized largely due to incorrect accounting treatment and aggressive assumptions for valuing residual assets."
Ms. Seidman, in testimony delivered to the Financial Institutions and Consumer Credit Subcommittee of the House Financial Services Committee just 31 hours before she closed Superior suggested that "certain types of non-traditional smaller institutions" could fail suddenly. Although she may have had Superior in mind that day, that statement certainly is not applicable to Superior. Superior did not fail suddenly nor was its failure a surprise, for it planted the seeds of its self-destruction eight and one-half years earlier. The fundamental question which must be asked, and answered: Why did the OTS tolerate that self-destructive business strategy?
From the beginning of 1995 to last Friday, there have been 35 bank and thrift failures, 33 of which caused a loss to the BIF and/or the SAIF. Attached to this testimony is a table listing these 35 failures. Losses range in size from an estimated $80,000 to $780 million, the latest loss estimate for the Keystone fiasco. Although the FDIC has not yet announced a loss estimate for the Superior failure, I plugged a $750 million figure in the table, which reflects my gross loss estimate of approximately $1 billion less that portion of the loss that will be borne by uninsured depositors and general creditors as well as litigation recoveries, net of litigation expenses. As the table shows, three failures -- Superior, Keystone, and BestBank -- account for $1.76 billion, or 86 percent, of the estimated BIF/SAIF losses over the last six and two-thirds years.
The loss amount in these three failures, which also happen to be the three largest institutions to fail, is so high largely because the insolvency loss percentage in these failures is so high, ranging up to 75 percent in the Keystone caper. A fourth failed bank, Pacific Thrift and Loan Company, with the fourth-highest loss amount, experienced the second-highest loss percentage of 68 percent. BestBank was third at 61 percent and Superior appears to come in fourth, at 43 percent, although that percentage will change as the FDIC gets a better fix on Superior's ultimate loss amount. Had the loss percentage in each of these four failures been held to 30 percent -- still a high percentage, especially for larger institutions -- the insolvency loss in these four cases would have been trimmed by over $800 million, or 40 percent of the FDIC's insurance losses since 1995.
Four charts appended to this testimony graphically place these expensive failures in perspective with other bank and thrift failures. Figure 1 contrasts the handful of extremely expensive failures since 1995 with the multitude of relatively inexpensive failures. Figure 2 presents this contrast in another manner, as a stacked bar. Figure 3 shows a distribution of FDIC insolvency losses as a percentage of assets in the failed institutions. Two of the six institutions listed by name (Commonwealth Thrift and Loan and Union Federal, FSB, were small institutions. Figure 4 ranks the ten most expensive FDIC-insured failures since 1986 based on their insolvency loss as a percentage of total assets. Although Superior and Keystone were the smallest two of these ten institutions, in terms of assets at the time of failure, they made the "top ten" list because of their high loss percentages.
It is clear from the table and the charts that there have been numerous instances, even among small institutions where high loss percentages can reasonably be expected, where the loss percentage has been fairly low -- under 10 percent or 20 percent. It is not unreasonable to classify low-cost failures of smaller banks and thrifts as the occasional "fender-benders" of the deposit insurance business. Of the 35 FDIC-insured failures since the beginning of 1995, I have characterized 24 of them as fender-benders.(5)
Failures with high loss percentages, including the four I just cited, strongly suggest that at least some of the time the regulators have moved far too slowly in getting a bank or thrift turned around, recapitalized, sold, or closed. This is a troubling situation that could worsen as the economy continues to slow down or if it slides into a recession. Therefore, the four federal bank regulatory agencies should get much more aggressive and move much more quickly to resolve problem situations before they create an insolvency loss. Given the insolvency risk of trying to save a weak bank or thrift so that it can remain independent, regulators should become much more aggressive in forcing weak institutions to merge into stronger institutions or to liquidate prior to insolvency, as Pacific Southwest Bank, FSB, did earlier this year.
One troubling thread running through some of the most expensive failures was a bank management team that vigorously fought efforts by examiners trying to gain a good understanding of the bank's financial condition and operating practices. That clearly was the case in the BestBank and Keystone failures. Apparently that happened to some extent at Superior. According to an article in last Friday's American Banker, Ms. Seidman stated at a news conference the previous day that OTS examiners "were confronted with a management that was `fighting back hard' against the [OTS's] criticisms." It amazes me that examiners were cowed in these situations given that that type of resistance often signals severe problems in the institution. Instead of being cowed, examiners who face a management "fighting back hard" should dig even harder and deeper to uncover the problems the management obviously is hiding.
What is especially troubling in the most costly failures has been the amount of buckpassing and finger pointing by the regulators, specifically in asserting that it is up to a bank's or thrift's outside auditors to detect fraud and properly value assets. In the Superior case, the OTS has been especially vociferous in asserting that Ernst & Young, Superior's auditors, was slow to properly value the securitization residuals on Superior's balance sheet.(6) In fact, fraud detection and asset valuation are absolutely central to the effective examination and supervision of depository institutions. Given the importance of these activities, bank regulators must make reasonable efforts to detect fraud and to properly value assets, with their own staffs or outside contractors, rather than relying on independent parties, such as an institution's accounting firm. I estimate that Superior paid the OTS $760,000 in 2000 in examination fees as well as substantial fees in earlier years. Those sums certainly were sufficient to permit the OTS to obtain the assistance of outside experts in periodically estimating the value of Superior's securitization-related assets. Any plea by the OTS that it was hamstrung by Ernst & Young in valuing Superior's residual interests is patently absurd.
Most disturbing is the sense that the federal bank regulators neither embrace or even understand their fiduciary obligation to the banking industry to minimize insolvency losses without being unduly restrictive of banking activities. Regulators owe this fiduciary obligation because it is the banking industry, through past and future deposit insurance assessments, and not taxpayers, who stand first in line to pay for regulatory failure. Good banks and thrifts don't let bad institutions fail, regulators do. If the regulators do a good job of protecting bankers' pocketbooks, the taxpayer will automatically be protected.
This absence of a sense of fiduciary obligation raises this question -- why are regulators not concerned about the impact of their failures on deposit insurance assessments? Partly it may be regulatory tradition and a lack of personal accountability on the part of senior regulatory management. After all, how many senior regulators have been fired over the last 20 years because of the almost 2,800 bank and thrift failures that have occurred? But there may be another reason, particularly at the OTS, for this lack of fiduciary obligation, and that is survival of the OTS, which is dependent upon its ability to generate examination fees. According to OTS financial statements posted on the OTS website (www.ots.treas.gov), the OTS slid from an $18 million profit in 1996 to a $13 million loss in 2000. According to an August 28, 2001, American Banker article, the OTS projects that it will return to profitability in 2003. Perhaps its will, but maybe it will not as the number of thrifts continues to decline. One can reasonably wonder if the prospective loss of $760,000 annually in exam fees deterred senior OTS management from moving more quickly to close Superior.
One additional point merits a mention in this discussion of broader regulatory problems that Congress should ponder, and that is the concept of depositor discipline. The notion of depositor discipline is the rationale for a deposit insurance limit, on the theory that large, uninsured depositors, armed with accurate, timely information about a bank's condition, will run from a weak institution, thereby ringing an alarm bell to wake up sleepy regulators. As I noted above, there appears to have been a substantial run by uninsured depositors from Superior last winter. What triggered this apparent run is a mystery, as is its effect on the OTS. Assuming a 40 percent loss rate, those uninsured depositors who fled Superior from last October to March of this year escaped a $175 million loss. As it is, the 816 depositors holding $66.4 million of uninsured deposits when Superior was closed(7) (an average of $81,400 per depositor) face a loss in the $25 million range. How could large depositors, such a former parcel deliverywoman who deposited a $145,000 disability payment in Superior the day before it closed(8), determine the true state of Superior's financial condition based on then publicly available call reports?
Many believe that deposit insurance creates a moral hazard, in that insured depositors care not a whit about a bank's or thrift's financial condition. But regulatory moral hazard trumps depositor moral hazard if regulators publish erroneous information on which to judge an institution's condition, as OTS did in the Superior situation, or if regulators inexplicably drag their feet in closing an insolvent institution, as the OTS did in the Superior situation. Although seldom discussed, regulatory moral hazard is the real issue Congress must now address, not depositor moral hazard. Attached is an article of mine, "Regulatory Moral Hazard: The Real Moral Hazard in Federal Deposit Insurance," which provides insights into this problem.
Superior's failure teaches many lessons, and will teach more as its causes become better understood. However, from both a legislative as well as a regulatory perspective, it is important to not to draw the wrong conclusions from these lessons and according enact new laws and adopt new regulations that will worsen matters. The following are my legislative recommendations stemming from the Superior failure:
Require more accurate and more frequent valuations of risky assets that err on the conservative side. This approach would be much better than higher capital requirements on risky types of assets. While it is much easier to set higher uniform capital standards, those standards will (1) drive less risky assets off bank balance sheets (this is called "regulatory arbitrage") and (2) postpone the day when asset values, and therefore capital levels, are realistically recognized on an institution's balance sheet. Also consider barring a financial institution from retaining any portion of its asset securitizations so that a true market value is established for the assets when they are sold.
Do not raise capital standards for intervention under Prompt Corrective Action as that will not make a meaningful difference in preventing bank and thrift failures with high loss percentages. However, higher intervention standards could cause sound, well-run banks and thrifts to overcapitalize themselves, which would drive lower-risk assets off of bank balance sheets (another form of regulatory arbitrage).
Empower the FDIC to levy losses above a certain percentage of a failed institution's assets -- say above 20 percent or 30 percent -- on the chartering agency of the bank. The agency would then have to pass that levy back to the institutions it has chartered through higher exam fees. The institutions chartered by that agency would then have a powerful incentive to pressure the agency's top management to prevent future high-loss-percentage failures.
Provide for tough personal sanctions and even job terminations for high level personnel in the agency or agencies responsible for the supervision of a failed institution with a high loss percentage. While a failed institution's management is directly responsible for its failure, the institution's regulators must be held personally accountable if the subsequent insolvency loss is too high.
Require the bank regulatory agencies to develop the capabilities -- either internally or under contract -- to detect fraud and to value all types of bank and thrift assets. While regulators should review reports from a bank's or thrift's outside auditors to gain an additional perspective on the institution, regulators should not place any reliance on audit reports for either examination or supervisory purposes.
Strengthen the FDIC's intervention powers, particularly when off-site monitoring suggests a lower CAMELS rating than the chartering agency has established. At a minimum, FDIC personnel should be able to accompanying another agency's examiners on an already-scheduled examination without the consent of the other agency. However, because examinations are disruptive to banks and thrifts, the FDIC should not be given the authority to conduct back-up exams on its own initiative. If a chartering agency refuses to let the FDIC do a back-up examination, the agency should be required to give the FDIC a confidential memorandum explaining the reasoning behind its denial. If the institution later fails with a high loss percentage, then that memorandum should be taken into consideration in determining how best to discipline senior management of the chartering agency (see above).
Give the FDIC greater power to force the closure of state-chartered institutions. Under no circumstances should a state banking department have the final authority over the closure of bank or thrift whose insolvency would cost the participants in a federally administered deposit insurance program. If a state government wishes to retain the ultimate closure decision, then it should reimburse the FDIC for any insolvency loss the FDIC might otherwise incur.
Acknowledge that sufficiently high risk-sensitive premiums, levied on the basis of leading indicators of banking risk, would provide weak banks with a powerful financial incentive to recapitalize or sell before insolvency is reached. An injection of capital should lead to a sufficient lowering of premiums to pay for that additional capital. That incentive might be more successful in avoiding insolvency losses than relying upon banking supervisors to turn around 4- and 5-rated banks.
Do not permit the FDIC to rely upon reinsurance premium rates to establish risk-sensitive premium rates for large banks as those rates will be too high given that a reinsurer must not only take into account the risk that a bank will become insolvent, but the possibly greater risk that the chartering agency will be slow to close a failing bank. Superior amply demonstrates the closure risk any reinsurer faces.
There should be public notification of the filing of amended TFRs and bank call reports to alert depositors and outside analysts of a possible decline in a bank's or thrift's financial condition. If depositor discipline is ever to be meaningful, particularly for banks and thrifts which do not file financial statements with the Securities and Exchange Commission, then it is absolutely vital that depositors have access to timely, accurate information with which to assess a bank's or thrift's financial condition and probability of failure.
These recommended reforms ultimately may not be sufficient to overcome regulatory moral hazard, in which case Congress should pursue more fundamental reforms. Former Treasury General Counsel Peter J. Wallison proposed in an attached April 27, 2001, op-ed in the American Banker, headlined "Industry, Not Government Is the Real Deposit Insurer," that the banking industry "establish the loss reduction policies that the FDIC enforces -- especially those concerning bank examinations and insurance premiums." I go one step further in advocating the cross-guarantee concept to delegate to the private sector the full responsibility for ensuring the safe-and-sound operation of banks and thrifts. This concept is summarized on pages 251 and 252 in my "Regulatory Moral Hazard" article cited above.
The Superior Bank failure is quite troubling, coming on the heels of the unnecessarily expensive Keystone and BestBank failures. I urge Congress to probe deeply into the regulatory failings leading up to these failures and to respond to their causes and not their symptoms.
Mr. Chairman, I thank you again for the opportunity to testify today in this most important matter. I welcome your questions and questions from your colleagues.
1 The balance sheet categories are: mortgage derivative securities, other mortgage pool securities, interest-only strip receivables and other instruments, and all other assets.
2 FDIC's annual Summary of Deposit data by bank and thrift branch can be found at www.fdic.gov.
3 American Banker, August 9, 2001.
4 American Banker, August 21, 2001.
5 A deposit insurance fender-bender is rather arbitrarily and liberally defined as (1) a failed institution with less than $50 million in assets and an insolvency loss percentage below 30 percent, (2) an institution with assets between $50 million and $100 million and a loss percentage below 20 percent, or (3) an institution with more than $100 million of assets and an insolvency loss below $5 million.
6 From 1964 to 1966, I was on the audit staff of Ernst & Ernst, a predecessor firm to Ernst & Young. I have no ties to Ernst & Young at this time.
7 American Banker, August 14, 2001.
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