For Texas Firms, a New Art: Financial Window-Dressing; Many Holding Companies Masked Poor Earnings Figures in 1983 by Selling Assets Such as Buildings and Land

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DALLAS -- Many major Texas bank holding companies, battered by energy loan losses last year, sold a variety of asets and used several accounting procedures that helped mask depressed earnings and losses in 1983.

Financial statements show that banks sold office buildings, land, subsidiary banks, and other assets. Had it not been for these sales and some cases of financial window-dressing, earnings at some of the holding companies would have been substantially worse than reported.

"What happens in times of economic difficulty is there is a greater search for those special items," said James J. McDermott Jr., an analyst at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods Inc. of New York. "If you back these items out and adjust earnings you clearly find that the underlying earnings are weak at the institutions that engaged in those transactions."

In most cases, the asset sales and accounting methods used by the banks did not violate federal regulations. But some cases have been criticized by analysts because the extra income masked the true operating performance of the banks.

"We tend to toss these things out" when evaluating bank earnings, said Lawrence W. Cohn, an analyst at Dean Witter Reynolds Inc. Assortment of Techniques

Interfirst Corp. of Dallas the state's largest bank holding company with assets of $21.7 billion, used a variety of techniques -- some of which ran afoul of federal regulators.

One such technique was to use tax benefits from losses on problem loans which Interfirst dropped after it was challenged by the Securities and Exchange Commission. The change forced Interfirst to restate its third-quarter income statement from a $194 million loss to a $294 million loss.

The copany, which also had real estate and collateral sales of about $7 million, ended the year with a $172 million loss.

Interfirst also was forced to shorten from 40 years to 25 years the time it will amortize $45 million of goodwill resulting from its purchase of First United Bancorp. of Fort Worth. The change means the amortization will have a greater negative impact on earnings during the shorter period. Merger Changed to Acquisition

Interfirst also changed the First United takeover from a merger to an acquisition. That allowed it to revalue First United's assets downward before putting them on its books, eliminating potential losses of $69.2 million from bad loans and securities transactions in the future.

Mercantile Texas Corp. of Dallas, with assets of $11.9 billion, sold its credit card operations to Southwest Bancshares Inc. of Houston. This resulted in an after-tax gain of $3.9 million, which equals 14 cents of Mercantile's fourth-quarter net income of 83 cents a share. Mercantile plans to merge with Southwest in the second quarter of this year.

Southwest Bancshares sold its Bank of the Southwest building in downtown Houston, which resulted in a fourth-quarter gain of $37 million. Without the sale, Southwest would have reported a $27 million loss in the quarter and earned just $2.8 million for the year.

Allied Bancshares Inc. of Houston sold its 50% interest in the Esperson building in downtown Houston, resulting in a $15.3 million gain in the fourth quarter. The company also reported a $3.1 million gain from the sale of its subsidiary bank in Hallettesville. Without these gains, Allied's fourth-quarter net income would have been $6 million instead of the $24.4 million reported.

Other after-tax gains reported by banks included:

* $7.9 million by Republic Bank Corp. of Dallas, from the sale of its interest in its former Houston bank building and from the return on investment notes.

* $5.3 million by BankTexas Group Inc. of Dallas, from the sale and leaseback of four subsidiary bank buildings. …