Banks should be safe

People worried about their money in Shelby County banks can rest easy at night, banking officials say.

Two local branch presidents said banks here are safe because they didn’t buy into the subprime mortgage hype.

“We’ve always been conservative in our lending,” said John Kirby, president of Peoples Bank & Trust in Montevallo. “You just don’t step out there in unknown waters.”

Billy Jones follows that same philosophy at Bryant Bank in Columbiana.

“We’re just not heavily in that market,” said Jones. “We know our customers and what they can afford.”

It’s a claim backed by both Alabama banking superintendent John Harrison and online bank rating services.

Harrison points out that no Alabama bank has failed in more than 21 years.

“I do not expect that record to be broken during these tough economic times,” said Harrison, who attributed the success to careful lending. “That conservative approach has given Alabama banks the ability to weather even these.”

The U.S. government doesn’t release any of its information on the safety of banks, but similar data is available from private research firms.

One of those sources, Bauer Financial, ranks banks on a scale of 1 to 5. One star means the bank is troubled, while five stars equals a superior rating.

Of the 21 banks in Shelby County, the average score was 3.5, or good.

Five banks had four stars, while Bryant and Central State banks both had perfect scores.

In fact, CapitalSouth Bank, which has a Pelham branch, was the only bank below three stars. The Birmingham-based bank received two stars.

The ratings are based on several items such as capital, earnings and liquidity. Scores for all area banks are below. Other banking rating services are available at www.fdic.gov.

While banks appear healthy, experts say it may still be hard to get a loan for a while.

“The credit crunch could hurt bankers in their ability to get money,” said William Rupp, dean of the University of Montevallo’s Michael E. Stephens College of Business. “It’s a pretty tough time now for bankers.”

Kirby acknowledged that banks would likely get stingier with their loans.

“If it’s a sound business that makes money and has a banking relationship, then the bank will continue to take care of their needs,” Kirby said. “But if it’s a questionable company, it’s going to be harder to get a loan right now. Banks will make sure people can pay back the money.”

Rupp said a recession was inevitable, brought on by greed from bankers, developers and people who bought houses they couldn’t afford.

“It’s like a roller coaster. We are sort of at the top and are going to have to take this 200-foot fall,” Rupp said. “The best thing to do is to keep your eye on the goal — don’t get crazy about anything.”

Jones agreed that it’s important for customers not to lose faith in their bank.

“If we can calm some fears and get some confidence back, we will gradually pull out of this,” Jones said.

Rupp hopes banks, the government and citizens will learn a lesson from the mess.

“It’s going to be a while, but the market is correcting,” said Rupp. “I hope this will help people understand they have to live within their means and on a budget.”

The following ratings are from Bauer Financial, a research firm. One star means a bank is “troubled,” while five stars equals a “superior” score.

Superior Bank – 3.5 stars

Frontier Bank – 3.5 stars

ServisFirst Bank – 3.5 stars

CB&S Bank – 4 stars

Bancorpsouth Bank – 4 stars

Compass Bank – 3.5 stars

Union State Bank – 3 stars

CapitalSouth Bank – 2 stars

Colonial Bank – 3.5 stars

First Commercial Bank – 4 stars

First Financial Bank – 3 stars

Red Mountain Bank – 3 stars

M&F Bank – 4 stars

First United Security Bank – 3.5 stars

Bryant Bank – 5 stars

Regions Bank – 4 stars

Aliant Bank – 3.5 stars

Wachovia Bank – 3 stars

Central State Bank – 5 stars

Peoples Bank & Trust – 3.5 stars

RBC Bank data was not available.