The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. voted Wednesday to keep bank and thrift premiums unchanged in the first half of 1998.

The rates range from zero to 27 cents per $100 of insured deposits, depending on the amount of risk an institution poses to its insurance fund. At midyear, 95% of all banks and 90% of all thrifts paid nothing for deposit insurance.

The Bank Insurance Fund earned $1.1 billion through the first three quarters of 1997-compared with its $653 million profit for the same period last year-and swelled to $28 billion. The bank fund's reserve ratio could climb as high as 1.46% of insured deposits by June 30, 1998, up from 1.35% in mid-1997, the FDIC said.

James Chessen, chief economist of the American Bankers Association, called the bank fund's growth "excessive" and urged lawmakers to cap it. The bank fund by next June could be as much as $4 billion above the 1.25% reserve ratio required by Congress, he said.

The Savings Association Insurance Fund earned $365 million for the first three quarters of 1997 to hike its reserves to $9.3 billion. A steep decline in premium rates after the October 1996 thrift bailout caused the thrift fund's earnings to drop nearly 60% from the same period last year. The thrift fund's reserve ratio also could soar to 1.46% by June 30, 1998, up from 1.32% in mid-1997.

"Given the health of these funds, this is the time to merge them," new Office of Thrift Supervision director Ellen S. Seidman said in her first remarks as an FDIC board member. She also recommended that the FDIC seriously study whether the current required reserve ratios are appropriate.

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