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WASHINGTON – U.S. banks are ending the year with their best profits since 2006 and fewer failures than at any time since the financial crisis struck in 2008. They’re helping support an economy slowed by high unemployment, flat pay, sluggish manufacturing and anxious consumers.

As the economy heals from the worst financial crisis since the Great Depression, more people and businesses are taking out – and repaying – loans.

And for the first time since 2009, banks’ earnings growth is being driven by higher revenue – a healthy trend. Banks had previously managed to boost earnings by putting aside less money for possible losses.

Signs of the industry’s gains:

• Banks are earning more. In the July-September quarter, the industry’s earnings reached $37.6 billion, up from $35.3 billion a year earlier. It was the best showing since the July-September quarter of 2006, long before the financial meltdown. By contrast, at the depth of the Great Recession in the last quarter of 2008, the industry lost $32 billion.

• Banks are lending a bit more freely. The value of loans to consumers rose 3.2 percent in the 12 months that ended Sept. 30 compared with the previous 12 months, according to data from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

• Fewer banks are considered at risk of failure. In July through September, the number of banks on the FDIC’s confidential “problem list” fell for a sixth straight quarter. These banks numbered 694 as of Sept. 30 – about 9.6 percent of all federally insured banks. At its peak in the first quarter of 2011, the number of troubled banks was 888, or 11.7 percent of all federally insured institutions.

• Bank failures have declined. In 2009, 140 failed. In 2010, more banks failed – 157 – than in any year since the savings and loan crisis of the early 1990s. In 2011, regulators closed 92. This year, the number of failures has trickled to 51.

• Less threat of loan losses. The money banks had to set aside for possible losses fell 15 percent in the July-September quarter from a year earlier.

“We are definitely on the back end of this crisis,” says Josh Siegel, chief executive of Stonecastle Partners, a firm that invests in banks.

The biggest boost for banks is the gradually strengthening economy. Employers added nearly 1.7 million jobs in the first 11 months of 2012. More people employed mean more people and businesses can repay loans. Banks have also been bolstered by higher capital, their cushion against risk. Banks boosted capital 3.8 percent in the third quarter, FDIC data show. And the industry’s average ratio of capital to assets reached a record high.

On the other hand, many banks are no longer benefiting from record-low interest rates. They still pay almost nothing to depositors and on money borrowed from other banks or the government, but steadily lower rates on loans other than credit cards have reduced how much banks earn.

“This interest-rate pressure on the banks becomes very difficult to overcome,” says Fred Cannon, chief equity strategist and director of research at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods. “It’s a big headwind for banks.”

Many banks have reported lower net interest margin – the difference between the income they receive from loans and the interest they pay depositors and other lenders. It’s a key measure of a bank’s profitability.

The industry’s average net interest margin fell to 3.43 percent in the third quarter from 3.56 percent a year earlier.

At M&T Bank Corp. net income soared in the third quarter. M&T attributed its gain to reduced loan losses and higher mortgage revenue. The bank repaid the remaining $381 million of the $600 million in bailout aid it had received during the crisis.

Yet analysts say regional banks are still feeling squeezed from reduced borrowing by companies.

Many banks complain they’ve been hampered by new regulations, especially stricter requirements for the capital they must hold to protect against unexpected losses. Rules enacted after the crisis have compelled some banks to move more capital into reserves and reduce the amount available to lend.

To avoid a collapse, some weak banks have sought mergers with larger institutions. In the July-September quarter, 49 banks were absorbed in mergers, up from 45 in the April-June quarter, FDIC data show.

The torrent of failures after the crisis and the mergers have thinned the number of banks to 7,181 with about 2.1 million employees as of Sept. 30. That compares with 8,451 banks with 2.2 million employees in the second quarter of 2008.

“The pressure is on to consolidate the industry,” says Siegel of Stonecastle Partners. He thinks more than 1,000 banks will be absorbed within five to seven years.