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Bank 'problem list': What it means

Failure of IndyMac puts a sharp focus on FDIC ratings of banks facing financial problems. Here are answers to some common questions.

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By Tami Luhby, CNNMoney.com senior writer

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NEW YORK (CNNMoney.com) -- The federal takeover of IndyMac Bank last week left many Americans wondering whether their bank was safe. It put a spotlight on a relatively obscure list published quarterly by the FDIC called the "problem list."

There were 90 banks on the problem list in the first quarter of 2008, up from 76 at the end of last year. The number has been increasing since the third quarter of 2006, when it hit a historic low of 47. Total assets at the problem institutions stand at $26.3 billion.

What is the problem list?

Problem banks have serious deficiencies in their finances, operations or management that threaten their continued viability. The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. publishes the number of banks in this condition in its Quarterly Banking Profile report.

The agency doesn't reveal the banks' names, but it does give the total assets of these institutions.

How does a bank get on the list?

Each bank in the country is examined at least every 12 to 18 months. Regulators rate the banks on a scale of 1 to 5, with 1 being the best. Factors that go into the ratings include: management controls, earnings, quality of assets, capital levels (which cushion against loan losses) and liquidity (which allows banks to meet their obligations, such as withdrawals by depositors).

Examiners are looking for problems such as an abundance of delinquent loans without sufficient reserves to cover the losses, weak risk management policies or a lack of cash to cover withdrawals.

Regulators then give the banks a report card, assigning a composite rating based on the bank's performance in each category. Those that receive a rating of 4 or 5 are put on the list.

What happens to a bank when it's on the list?

The bank's executives see a lot of regulators during this time. Bank officials are told what steps they have to take to shore up their business.

"The management of the bank has to address the problems that got them into the penalty box in the first place," said Christopher Whalen, managing director of Institutional Risk Analytics.

If the bank can't correct the problems, it either sells itself to another institution or it is taken over by the FDIC.

How many banks on the list actually fail?

Only 13% on average. So far this year, five banks have failed - a far cry from the turbulent times of the savings and loan crisis of the early 1990s, when more than a thousand institutions shut down.

Why is the list not made public?

Since most banks on the list don't fail, the agency wants to prevent making things worse by scaring customers, vendors and other players in the financial system while regulators are working with a problem bank.

"Regulators can give banks frank evaluations of their condition without threatening their stability," said Chip MacDonald, partner in the capital markets group at Jones Day, a law firm.

Should consumers be concerned?

Considering there are about 8,500 banks in the United States, 90 problem banks is not that large a number, said L. William Seidman, a former FDIC chairman. During the S&L crisis in the late 1980s and early 1990s, about 1,500 banks were on the problem list.

"Just because a bank is on the list doesn't mean it's going to fail," Seidman said. "If customers have deposits of under $100,000, they don't have to worry. They will get their money." To top of page

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