WASHINGTON - The Bank Insurance Fund hit a record high $21.85 billion in 1994 by adding $8.7 billion during the year, the government announced Tuesday.

The growth boosted the fund's reserve ratio to 1.15% on Dec. 31, just $1.85 billion shy of the target banks must meet to earn a cut in insurance premiums. The bank fund, by law, must hold $1.25 for every $100 of insured deposits before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. can lower its rates.

The new numbers were released at an open meeting of the FDIC board where members proposed three new regulations, finalized two others, and withdrew a pending rule. However, none of the FDIC's members commented on the bank fund's growth.

But while FDIC officials weren't talking Tuesday, industry experts said the new numbers show that deposit insurance rates should come down farther faster.

Right now, the FDIC expects the bank fund to recapitalize in June or July, but the agency is planning to wait until the fourth quarter to implement the premium reduction. Acknowledging that it will overcharge banks in the third quarter, the FDIC has said it will refund any money collected above the 1.25% ratio.

"They don't need to collect any premiums in the second half," said Bert Ely, president of Ely & Associates, a consulting firm in Alexandria, Va.

Mr. Ely said he expects the bank fund to cross the 1.25% threshold within the next month, noting that the average quarterly income last year was $2.2 billion.

When the FDIC proposed a rate cut for banks on Jan. 31, the agency said it expected the average premium to sink to 4.5 cents per $100 of domestic deposits from the current 23 cents.

Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America, said Tuesday the new rate should be half what the FDIC is proposing.

"Four cents is too high," he said. "Two cents would be more than enough to maintain and probably grow the 1.25%."

As good news on the bank fund piles up, pressure mounts on FDIC Chairman Ricki Tigert Helfer to find a solution to the thrift fund's problems.

No rate cut is being considered for thrifts. At yearend, the Savings Association Insurance Fund has $1.9 billion or 0.28% of insured deposits.

In addition to paying for failures, the thrift fund must pay $779 a year in interest on bonds floated in 1987 to begin the industry's cleanup.

Deposits have been flowing out of SAIF and as the fund shrinks, so does its income. The FDIC is worried the coming gap between bank and thrift rates will endanger the thrift fund's ability to pay these bonds.

Separately Tuesday, the FDIC proposed a new rule limiting generous severance agreements, known as "golden parachutes," for bank and thrift executives. This plan first surfaced in 1991. It has been reworked to offer a number of exemptions.

The FDIC also proposed a new process for bankers to appeal regulatory decisions. New guidelines on asset quality also were proposed.

Two new rules were finalized Tuesday. The first lowers the amount of capital a bank must hold against low-level recourse deals. The second puts in place general guidelines to govern the safe and sound operation of a bank. These rules have been implemented by the other banking agencies already.

Finally, the FDIC withdrew its 1991 proposal on "adverse contracts." This proposal would have allowed the agency to cancel contracts it found adversely affected the safety and soundness of an insured institution.

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