WASHINGTON -- Banking regulators and most private economists say there is no sign of a calamitous collapse of the financial order, despite the steady decline in the banking industry's earnings and the decline in the assets of the federal program that protects depositors.
Bankers and bank regulators expect that the results from the fourth quarter, which ends today, will be bleak and that 1991 will be disappointing as well, in large part because of the crippled real estate markets, where so many bank assets are tied up.
At least for now, however, officials do not foresee widespread failures among the nation's largest banks, almost all of which will continue to post some profits.
As these institutions struggle through a difficult period, bank shareholders are likely to see their investments continue to lose value and their dividends cut.
Borrowers will find it harder and more expensive to get loans, as banks tighten lending standards and pass on the cost of any increase in deposit insurance premiums.
Yet any comparison with the troubled savings and loan industry quickly shows that at this point banking problems are not comparable.
"They are as different as chalk and cheese," Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady has said frequently. Many authorities on banking agree.
"The differences between the conditions of the two industries far outweigh any similarities," said H. Rodgin Cohen, a leading banking and savings industry lawyer at the New York firm of Sullivan & Cromwell.
"There is a very serious question of whether the thrift industry will survive. That is clearly not the case with banks."
While more than a third of all savings institutions have experienced significant financial problems, government regulators expect far fewer banks to be in jeopardy.
Based on reports from examiners, the government estimates that 180 of the nation's 12,399 banks will collapse in 1991.
Those endangered banks have assets of $70 billion out of the industry total of $3.3 trillion. This year, 168 banks with $15.8 billion in assets failed.
In the quarter that ended Sept. 30, 89 percent of banks remained profitable, posting total earnings of $3.75 billion.
Over the same period, the losses of the 2,389 savings institutions still in private hands and 206 under government control totaled nearly $1.5 billion.
"I reject a lot of the parallels that have been made between the thrifts and banks," said Robert E. Litan, an economist at the Brookings Institution.
"Certainly the bank regulators have been much better, and there is not any evidence of the same massive scale of fraud and insider abuses as at the thrifts. But I'm not diminishing the fact that the banks could get to the stage of the thrifts if the regulators really screw things up."
Yet what makes the current forecasts about the relative good health of the banking industry unsettling is that even the latest official numbers may not be reliable.
That has led some economists and lawmakers to conclude that the banks are at the beginning of a crisis similar to that of the savings associations.
The regulators' forecasting record in the last few months has been poor, and they now acknowledge that they are unsure of precisely how deep the industry's hole might get.
"We are now where we were in the mid-1980s with thrifts," said R. Dan Brumbaugh Jr., a former economist at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board and a critic of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
"There continues to be a denial and understatement of the problems."