WASHINGTON — The number of troubled U.S. banks kept growing last quarter even as the industry as a whole had its best quarter in two years.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Thursday that the number of banks on its confidential "problem" list grew to 775 in the January-March period from 702 in the previous quarter. But banks overall posted net income of $18 billion, up from $5.6 billion in the same quarter a year earlier.
Florida did not fare as well, though it came much closer to breaking even than last year.
Statewide, all commercial banks and savings institutions lost a combed $104 million for the quarter. That compares with a net loss of $757 million in the year-ago quarter.
As of March 31, Florida had 278 banks and savings institutions, down from 305 a year ago. The number of commercial banks, alone, fell from 268 to 248.
"The banking system still has many problems to work through, and we cannot ignore the possibility of more financial market volatility," FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair acknowledged. But, she added, "The trends continue to move in the right direction."
The largest banks showed the most improvement. They have mounted a strong recovery thanks to federal bailout money and record-low borrowing rates from the Federal Reserve.
A majority of institutions posted gains in net income in the first quarter. But many small and midsized banks are likely to suffer in coming years, especially from failed loans for offices and developments.
Larger banks are doing better, partly because they are able to cut back on lending in troubled parts of the country such as Florida and Nevada, said Anil Shivdasani, a finance professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.
"For the most part, smaller and regional banks have less flexibility," he said.
The amount of money that banks set aside to cover future losses dipped nearly 17 percent from a year earlier. Losses taken on loans that banks don't expect to be repaid were up 38 percent from a year earlier. But those losses were down slightly from 2009's fourth quarter.
The FDIC's deposit insurance fund, which fell into the red last fall, posted its first improvement in two years. Its deficit shrank by $145 million to $20.7 billion.
The FDIC expects U.S. bank failures to cost the insurance fund about $100 billion through 2013.
Last year, 140 federally insured institutions failed and were shut down by regulators. It was the highest annual number since 1992 during the savings and loan crisis. The pace of bank collapses this year exceeds last year's. So far, 72 banks have failed in 2010. As a result of those failures and bank mergers, the number of FDIC-insured institutions fell to 7,932 in the first quarter.
That's the first dip below 8,000 in the history of the FDIC, which was created in 1933. However, depositors' money — insured up to $250,000 per account — isn't at risk.
A change in accounting rules forced banks to bring assets packaged into securities onto their balance sheets. That boosted the value of loans on banks' books by nearly $249 billion, up nearly 2 percent from the fourth quarter of last year. Without the accounting change, however, loan volume would have declined.