WASHINGTON - Abandoning a fiercely held position, the American Bankers Association agreed Friday to help fix the fledgling thrift deposit insurance fund.

In a letter to government and congressional leaders, ABA president Howard L. McMillan said the trade group will back comprehensive legislation that could require banks to finance a portion of the rescue.

"If banks are eventually obligated to contribute in some fashion to a comprehensive resolution, banks should certainly be compensated ... through decreases in costs and/or increases in competitive opportunities," Mr. McMillan wrote.

Any comprehensive solution, the ABA said, should include a merger of the bank and thrift charters.

Until now, the ABA has refused to concede that there was a problem that the thrift industry was not capable of solving on its own. Its new position sweeps away one of the primary obstacles to a legislative solution to the thrift fund's woes.

In particular, the ABA position could jump-start efforts by government officials to fashion a plan to rescue the thrift fund. The ABA has insisted until now that banks would not kick in any cash.

The ABA still is demanding that thrifts shore up the fund on their own, but the group is now ready to acknowledge that banks might pay part of the $780 million due annually on the Financing Corp. bonds issued in 1987 and 1988 to shore up the old Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp.

"All parties with a potential interest in SAIF or Fico should be required to contribute financially," Mr. McMillan said. Beyond banks, that list should include the government and credit unions, he added.

Mr. McMillan based ABA's change of heart on a belief that thrifts will come up with $6 billion for their fund, that the bank and thrift insurance funds will not be merged, and that bank insurance premiums will soon be reduced dramatically.

The Bankers Roundtable sent a similar letter Friday to the same officials, who lead the House and Senate banking committees, the Treasury Department, and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer also received a letter last week from the chairman of a key House Banking subcommittee, who questioned how urgent the thrift fund's problems are.

Rep. Marge Roukema, chairman of House Banking's financial institutions subcommittee, said Ms. Helfer had promised to deliver a remedy for the fund weeks ago.

"This lack of follow-through by the administration and the FDIC regarding this issue suggests that the need to take action, as set forth in your testimony, is not necessary," the New Jersey Republican wrote. "Does the FDIC still believe legislation is necessary?"

"We are sorry that Congresswoman Roukema feels that way," said an administration official. "We take SAIF's problems very seriously."

In another development that could affect the undercapitalized thrift insurance fund, the Comptroller of the Currency last week denied the ABA's requests for public hearings on the applications of four thrift holding companies to charter national banks.

The thrift fund has only about one-fourth the reserves required under federal law. With the Bank Insurance Fund at or near the full- capitalization level of 1.25% of insured deposits, the FDIC will soon have to cut banks' insurance premiums to about 4.5 cents per $100 of domestic deposits.

Without a rescue for the savings fund, thrifts will continue to pay the current 23-cent rate - which the administration has said will be disastrous for both the thrift industry and the savings fund.

Regulators testifying in March before Rep. Roukema's subcommittee agreed that something had to be done to prop up the ailing thrift fund.

"Representations were made that the administration and/or the FDIC would have a substantive proposal to provide to Congress to address these issues by spring," Ms. Roukema wrote. "Despite repeated requests, no such formal proposal has been forthcoming."

The congresswoman asked for details on the thrift fund rescue plan, and how that solution would affect the federal budget.

In the case of the thrifts that want to charter national banks - which would be insured by the healthy Bank Insurance Fund - the Comptroller's office told the ABA that written comments would suffice and a public hearing was not necessary.

- Olaf de Senerpont Domis and Justin Fox contributed to this report.

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