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Nationally, banks earned $18.6 billion last year, a 15 percent increase over 1990, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

The boost came despite 11 big banks losing money.In a preview of a report for release later this week, the agency attributed the improvement, from $16.1 billion in 1990, entirely to an increase in gains from selling Treasury notes and other securities.

It was the industry's best performance since 1988, when it earned $24.8 billion. However, operating income, which excludes profits from securities sales, fell slightly, to $14.8 billion from $15 billion.

"For all the pain and strain in '91, that's not so bad," said FDIC Chairman William Taylor.

A key measure of profitability - return on assets - also edged higher, from 0.49 percent in 1990 to around 0.55 percent last year, he said.

Because the prices of Treasury debt rise as interest rates fall, the country's 12,000 banks were able to earn $3 billion from securities sales in 1991 compared with $481 million a year earlier.

Taylor conceded that the average size of troubled banks has increased "in a pretty sizable fashion."

While the number of banks on the FDIC's problem list has held relatively steady, the amount of assets held by banks on the list has soared 51 percent between June 30 and Jan. 31 to an all-time high.

The number of institutions on the list over the seven months has risen from 1,033 to 1,071 while assets have increased from $404 billion to $613 billion.

However, Taylor said it is a mistake to say all big banks are hurting. Among the 50 largest, 23 enjoyed a healthy return on assets of 0.90 percent or higher last year, he said. Eleven lost money.

"You've got a very, very large chunk of the industry earning quite a bit of money, actually more than has historically been the case," he said.

"More sobering, a significant portion of the industry is not doing well at all . . . the winners are winning big and the losers are losing big," he said.