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US Banks Set Aside Record Amount for Loan Losses

U.S. banks set aside a record $31.3 billion for loan losses in the 2007 fourth quarter to offset weakening conditions in the housing and credit markets, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp said on Tuesday.

For all of 2007, the U.S. bank industry set aside $68.2 billion for potential loan losses, the agency said in its quarterly report.

The industry's delinquent loans jumped 32.5 percent to $26.9 billion in the fourth quarter, the biggest quarterly percentage rise in 24 years, the agency said.

Meanwhile, earnings at U.S. banks and thrifts plunged 83.5 percent to a 16-year low of $5.8 billion in the fourth quarter, down from $35.2 billion a year earlier, the FDIC said.

"It's no surprise to anyone that the second half of 2007 was a very tough period for the banking industry," said FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair. "Fourth quarter results were heavily influenced by a number of well-publicized write-downs by large banks."

U.S. lending standards are tightening and loan demand is slowing, FDIC officials said.

"This is an inherently healthy process and it won't last forever," Richard Brown, the FDIC's chief economist, told reporters. The weakness in the credit markets "probably has several more quarters to run," he added.

Other FDIC officials said the agency expects the number of problem institutions to rise. There were 76 institutions on the FDIC's list of problem banks at the end of 2007, up from 50 at the end of 2006, the agency said. The list is based on capital adequacy, earnings, liquidity and management.

"We'll also need to keep a close eye -- as we've been doing for a number of months -- on loan portfolios other than housing, including commercial real estate, credit cards and small business," Bair said. "All of these are showing signs of stress as housing market weakness continues."

The FDIC insures deposits at more than 8,500 U.S. banks.