1st Mariner oversight tightened

In the latest sign of trouble, 1st Mariner Bank said Monday that it has been placed under more intense federal supervision as Baltimore's largest independent bank continues to struggle with soured real estate loans and its inability to raise cash.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and Maryland Division of Financial Regulation issued a "cease and desist" order Friday, according to documents filed Monday with the Securities and Exchange Commission, requiring 1st Mariner to devise a plan to improve its capital, liquidity and earnings and deal with problem loans.

The enforcement action is the latest hurdle for the bank, which had been operating under an informal supervisory agreement and has had to transfer money from its holding company to maintain capital levels.

The bank, which has been hurt by the housing slump, reported a $2.4 million loss in the second quarter.

A banking consultant pointed to the order as a sign that the government is one step closer to a takeover.

"You have a bank with a number of problems, and they haven't cured the problems that were raised in the informal proceedings," said Bert Ely, a banking analyst with Ely & Co. "Now, you get the formal order, and that's another step toward eventual takeover of the bank. We see this all the time."

In a statement, the bank said its board and management had taken steps to devise and implement strategies to address issues noted by federal and state regulators.

For months, 1st Mariner has been trying to raise money from investors, or sell its consumer lending company to improve its capital levels.

"The bank continues to pursue plans to increase its capitalization through a combination of capital-raising efforts, which include conventional efforts in public and private markets as well as sale of assets," 1st Mariner said, noting it does not believe the order will have a material impact on its operations.

Customers also will not be affected by the order, the bank said. Deposits of up to $250,000 per individual per account are insured by the FDIC.

The order requires 1st Mariner to submit a plan within 30 days that achieves and maintains its "Tier 1" leverage capital ratio at or greater than 7.5 percent, and its total risk capital ratio at or greater than 11 percent by June 30, 2010.

The bank said it has presented a plan to federal and state regulators on how it will achieve a Tier 1 leverage capital ratio of 6.5 percent and a total risk capital ratio of 10 percent by March 31, 2010, and also meet the order's higher targets by June 30.

The bank had a Tier 1 leverage capital ratio of 5.77 percent and a total risk capital ratio of 8.7 percent as of June 30, according to regulatory filings.

Ely said the bank is adequately capitalized, but below the highest regulatory distinction. Moreover, the bank must charge off all loans that are classified as a loss within 10 days of the order.

The bank's loan loss reserves of $11.5 million as of June 30 is insufficient to cover its troubled loans, Ely said.

The bank also must show how it can improve its bottom line and cut costs.

The mortgage crisis has hurt a number of local banks and led to the failure of two Maryland banks: Bradford Bank of Towson last month and Suburban Federal Savings Bank of Crofton in January.

1st Mariner Bank is the wholly owned subsidiary of 1st Mariner Bancorp, which is headed by Edwin F. Hale Sr., its chairman and chief executive.