bank profits

Bank profits hit all-time high

February 26, 2014: 10:21 AM ET

Despite recovery, key lending measure is still down.


FORTUNE -- Not only have the nation's banks fully recovered from the financial crisis, their bottom lines are now healthier than ever.

On Wednesday, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said profits at U.S. lenders hit an all-time high in 2013. For the year, the nation's banks made a collective $155 billion. That's up 10% from a year ago, and it was more than the $148 billion the banks made back in 2006, the last time profits peaked.

For the last three months of 2013, banks made $40.3 billion. That was also an all-time high, and a rebound. Bank profits were down in the second and third quarters of the year.

The FDIC noted a large portion of the bottom line boost, though, came from an accounting maneuver that other regulators have cautioned about. In the fourth quarter, the FDIC said 20% of bank profits came from putting away less money to cover future lending losses. Recently, officials from the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency have questioned whether banks are lowering their reserves for bad loans too quickly.

MORE: JPMorgan slims down its ambitions

The FDIC also said the number of banks on its "problem list" dropped to 467 at the end of 2013, the smallest the list has been since the end of the financial crisis. The list climbed during the financial crisis and in the immediately following years, peaking at 888 in early 2011.

The higher profits come at a time when some are still wondering why banks aren't making more loans. At JPMorgan Chase's (JPM) annual meeting on Tuesday, prominent bank analyst Mike Mayo asked JPMorgan CEO Jamie Dimon directly why banks aren't doing more to help the economy and borrowers now that their own bottom lines have recovered. Dimon responded that his bank is lending more, but new regulations mean it has to hold more cash than it used to.

According to the FDIC, bank lending as a percentage of deposits sunk to 69.3% at the end of 2013. That was an all-time low. Before the financial crisis, banks used to regularly lend out more than 80% of their deposits. The figure hit a peak of 94% in mid-2006.

The recent drop in that figure comes in part because of the continued fast growth of bank deposits. Overall, lending rose in the fourth quarter, but not in all areas, including one that is key to the economic recovery. Primary mortgage loans dropped by $51 billion in 2013. The fourth quarter marked the fourth consecutive quarterly drop in home lending, and that trend is likely to continue. At Tuesday's JPMorgan meeting, bank officials predicted the mortgage market would decline 34% in 2014.

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