WASHINGTON - The government is expected to owe the banking industry nearly $2 billion by the time the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. finally cuts its rates in September.

That's because banks will be charged current, high premiums through Sept. 30, even though the FDIC estimates that the Bank Insurance Fund hit its required reserve level in April - about three months earlier than expected.

Rebating BIF premiums back to May 1 would mean the FDIC overcharged banks for five months, or $1.9 billion in premiums. The agency has promised to pay interest on those overpayments as well.

Right now banks are paying 23 cents per $100 of domestic deposits. In January, the FDIC announced plans to slash bank rates to an average of 4.5 cents. The agency has said it may not reduce premiums until it can prove that the bank fund holds $1.25 for every $100 of insured deposits.

Congress told the FDIC that it could not lower bank premiums until this 1.25% threshold was met.

The FDIC has been estimating that the fund would hit 1.25% sometime between June 1 and July 31. News of an earlier recapitalization - as early as the end of April - came last week from William A. Longbrake, the FDIC's chief financial officer.

Speaking to a group of analysts last Thursday, Mr. Longbrake said the FDIC may have to rebate all premiums paid after May 1. In an interview Friday, he emphasized that the FDIC will not be able to pinpoint the bank fund's recapitalization until mid-September, when analysis of the June 30 call report data is completed. He said the refund date could slip to June 1.

"It could be as early as May 1, it could be June 1," he said in the interview. "I don't think it will be later than that unless deposit growth takes off in a spectacular fashion."

In the first four months of 1995, total deposits declined 0.6% to $2.399 trillion, according to the Federal Reserve Board.

James Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association, on Friday said the FDIC should be able to verify the bank fund's size before September.

"How can the FDIC in good faith bill at current rates for the entire third quarter?" Mr. Chessen asked. "There is no reason to wait for the June 30 call reports."

Mr. Chessen also questioned why the FDIC is delaying a formal vote on the premium cut.

"It is creating a tremendous fire in the belly of bankers," he said. "The FDIC should take affirmative action to assure bankers that they will get their money back."

The FDIC is taking action, sending a letter to all bank chief executives this week explaining why the premium reduction has not yet been adopted.

When the rate cut was proposed in January, the FDIC said it would vote to adopt it in mid-May. But that vote has been delayed as the agency sorts through 3,200 comment letters filed on the reduction.

"The timing for adoption of a final rule, however, will not affect the amount of any premium reduction the board would adopt or the refunds that would be made," a draft copy of the letter states.

Separately on Friday, FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer gave a speech intended to persuade bankers to chip in and help bolster the underfunded Savings Association Insurance Fund.

"The SAIF, the BIF, and the FDIC are distinguishable to only a small segment of the population," Ms. Helfer warned in a speech to the Mississippi Bankers Association. "To most, only one acronym - FDIC - makes a difference."

But the ABA, which has resisted being dragged into any sort of thrift fund rescue, remains unconvinced.

"I don't think the banking industry benefits one iota from relieving the thrift industry of its obligation," Mr. Chessen said. "No one has yet come up with a convincing reason why banks ought to pay."

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