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Banking on communication 

With Wall Street banks in turmoil and signs the sickness is spreading to some regional banks, many local banks are reaching out to customers with soothing messages. Local financial experts, however, say there are additional questions customers can ask if they’re concerned about the strength of an individual bank.

Paso Robles-based Heritage Oaks Bank recently reminded its clients that deposits are federally insured up to a minimum of $100,000 per account.

“Please know that we do not hold any mortgage loans in our loan portfolio that are of the nature or type which has led to the problems in some banking sectors,” wrote President and CEO Larry Ward.

Ward’s letter described Heritage as “a very conservative bank,” and urged customers not to judge the bank by its stock price, which has fallen.

Founders Community Bank sounded similar themes in a public letter, noting it’s considered “well-capitalized” under state and federal banking regulations.

George Leis, president and CEO of Pacific Capital Bancorp, which owns a number of local banks, including First Bank of San Luis Obispo, San Benito Bank, South Valley National Bank, First National Bank, and Santa Barbara Bank & Trust, echoed such themes in an August letter to customers, noting it had never made loans considered sub-prime and had “$1.3 billion in liquidity, which is well in excess of the amount needed to meet the typical liquidity needs of our customers.”

He also noted the bank had recently attracted $100 million in new CD deposits. But the letter allowed: “Although, like most banks in California, we have been affected by the weakness in the homebuilding industry and housing market, we believe that our loan losses in these sectors are manageable.”

New Times spoke with several area experts, ranging from banking officials to Cal Poly economics professors.

Here are some of the deeper questions they say customers could pose to their banks if they’re concerned.

Q: Is your bank having trouble getting money in the overnight market? (This is the system banks use to lend money to each other. In recent weeks, many banks have stopped lending to each other or hiked interest rates so high it is unfeasible.)

Q: Bear Stearns went down more than six months ago, and IndyMac in Pasadena fell into receivership after a run on the bank in June. When did your bank recognize problems within the larger market, and what steps did you take to protect assets?

Q: Were you offering sub-prime mortgages?

Q: Did you offer no-documentation-required loans, which have come to be known as “liar’s loans?”

Q: Assuming you meet the federal and state balance sheet requirements, do you also meet stricter international standards put forth under the Basel II Accord?

Q: How much exposure did you have to the money market funds which experienced a run in recent days? ?

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