Reporting from Washington — The number of banks in danger of failing shot up to 702 at the end of last year, the highest level since 1993, as the industry continues to struggle in its recovery from the so-called Great Recession, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Tuesday.
The large number of "problem institutions" -- up from 552 at the end of September -- comes after 140 banks failed in 2009, a level not seen since the savings and loan crisis in 1990.
Not all banks on the problem list fail, and FDIC Chairwoman Sheila Bair noted that the vast majority of the approximately 8,000 banks with insured deposits are healthy.
"Overall, I think the banking system is challenged but stable," Bair said.
Still, Bair said she expected bank failures to peak this year as the industry's recovery lags behind the overall economy and a wave of commercial real estate foreclosures is anticipated.
So far this year 20 banks have failed, including La Jolla Bank in San Diego County on Friday. Its remains were acquired by OneWest Bank. The FDIC has estimated that expected bank failures from 2009 to 2013 will cost it about $100 billion.
The industry's problems are taking a toll on the FDIC fund that covers most insured deposits. That fund, which is paid for by banks, fell $12.6 billion in the fourth quarter to end 2009 with a negative balance of $20.9 billion.
But Bair said that figure was deceiving because it did not include billions of dollars already set aside for expected losses from bank failures. Taking that money into account, the Deposit Insurance Fund has a positive $23.1-billion balance.
To replenish the fund, the FDIC ordered banks to prepay three years of premiums by the end of 2009. Bair stressed that the federal government stands behind the fund, so customers should not be worried about whether their deposits would be covered.
Although the industry had a rough fourth quarter, posting a profit of less than $1 billion, it was a huge improvement over the last three months of 2008 during the height of the financial crisis. Back then, banks posted a collective $26.2-billion loss.
"It's not that it was a strong quarter but just that everything was so bad a year ago," Bair said of the industry's performance. "There is incremental improvement here. We are seeing some encouraging signs, but it's going to take the year to work through."