On Wednesday, regulators said that the US thrift industry had earned its first profit since the third quarter of 2007, but the number of troubled institutions continued to rise. Profit for the period ended June 30, 2009 was $4 million, compared to a loss of $1.62 billion sequentially and $5.4 billion in the prior-year quarter. The small profit for the quarter mainly came from higher net interest margins, lower provisions for loan losses and better fees.

Although results for the quarter showed some improvement, overall performance of the industry remained uneven. Troubled assets at thrifts accounted for 3.52% of the industry’s assets, up from 3.35% in the previous quarter. However, total value of troubled assets fell to $38.6 billion from $41 billion in the earlier quarter.

“Problem thrifts” on the agency’s list are those which have significantly low capital reserves and other deficiencies. Their number rose to 40 from 31 sequentially and from 17 in the year-ago quarter.

According to the Office of Thrift Supervision (OTS), the uneven financial picture reflects the nation’s weak job market and a generally depressed economic environment. Thrifts continued to set aside large amounts of money to protect against deteriorating loans. Though loan loss provisions declined slightly to $4.7 billion during the second quarter, it was the sixth-highest on record. We expect provisions to remain elevated until the housing and job markets stabilize.

New mortgage loans by thrifts fell sharply to $70.5 billion from $96.1 billion in the prior quarter and $128.3 billion in the prior-year period.

Thrifts are required to have at least 65% of their loans as mortgages and other consumer loans, which makes them particularly vulnerable to the housing downturn. But banks have no such compulsion. However, the banking industry is likely to face further special assessments as more institutions fail during the recession.

The OTS supervised 794 thrifts as well as 459 holding company enterprises at the end of the quarter. The agency said that three thrifts had failed during the second quarter.

A total of 81 federally insured banks have failed so far this year. This includes several large thrifts. The failure of Seattle-based Washington Mutual Inc. last year was the biggest US bank failure ever. Washington Mutual, that involved thrifts, was acquired by JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM).

Among the others, recently, Guaranty Bank failed and was sold to BBVA Compass, the US arm of Spain’s second-largest bank Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria (BBV). The banking operations of Colonial were sold to BB&T Corp. (BBT).

Read the full analyst report on “JPM”
Read the full analyst report on “BBV”
Read the full analyst report on “BBT”
Zacks Investment Research