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Fewer US Banks Failing As Industry Strengthens

â¿¿ Bank failures have declined. In 2009, 140 failed. In 2010, more banks failed â¿¿ 157 â¿¿ than in any year since the savings and loan crisis of the early 1990s. In 2011, regulators closed 92. This year, the number of failures has trickled to 51. That's still more than normal. In a strong economy, an average of only four or five banks close annually. But the sharply reduced pace of closings shows sustained improvement.

â¿¿ Less threat of loan losses. The money banks had to set aside for possible losses fell 15 percent in the July-September quarter from a year earlier. Loan portfolios have strengthened as more customers have repaid on time. Losses have fallen for nine straight quarters. And the proportion of loans with payments overdue by 90 days or more has dropped for 10 straight quarters.

"We are definitely on the back end of this crisis," says Josh Siegel, chief executive of Stonecastle Partners, a firm that invests in banks.

The biggest boost for banks is the gradually strengthening economy. Employers added nearly 1.7 million jobs in the first 11 months of 2012. More people employed mean more people and businesses can repay loans. And after better-than-expected economic news last week, some analysts said the economy could end up growing faster in the October-December quarter â¿¿ and next year â¿¿ than previously thought.

That assumes Congress and the White House can strike a budget deal to avert the "fiscal cliff" â¿¿ the steep tax increases and spending cuts that are set to kick in Jan. 1. If they don't reach a deal, those measures would significantly weaken the economy.

Banks have also been bolstered by higher capital, their cushion against risk. Banks boosted capital 3.8 percent in the third quarter, FDIC data show. And the industry's average ratio of capital to assets reached a record high.

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