The thrift industry has been unusually quiet in recent years. Once powerful enough to bully regulators and legislators alike, the nation's savings and loans seemed to lose their political voice as the tab for the thrift bailout mounted.

In fact, the industry has pretty much been persona non grata on Capitol Hill since 1989, when the bailout law was enacted. Thrift lobbyists had little access and less clout. The industry almost seemed humble.

But there are signs these days that thrifts are getting back a bit of their old swagger. That's particularly apparent in the brewing legislative battle over SAIF, the Savings Association Insurance Fund. Some industry executives have decided it's time to stop apologizing for the thrift debacle.

Steve Trafton, the no-nonsense chairman of Glendale Federal Savings Bank, said in a recent interview that the industry has been kicked around by the federal government long enough. Thrifts should begin hitting back, he suggested.

The California savings and loan executive has better credentials than most to challenge the federal government. As recently as a year ago, Glendale was in deep financial trouble, weighted down by supervisory goodwill it had taken on at the behest of federal regulators. The Office of Thrift Supervision wanted in the worst way to shut down the thrift.


Mr. Trafton fought the OTS - in the courts, on Capitol Hill, and finally in the investment community. It was a minor miracle that he was able to hold off the regulator and raise enough equity to keep Glendale alive.

But he succeeded, and now he wants to make sure that Glendale isn't done in by the cost of recapitalizing the SAIF. Toward that end, he's become a fixture on Capitol Hill, and some thrift lobbyists are privately alarmed by his aggressive campaign.

"Look at Fico," Mr. Trafton said in a recent interview, referring to the agency created in 1987 to rescue the now-defunct Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., the predecessor of SAIF. "That was never our liability."

Instead, he asserted, the financing mechanism created in 1987 "was clearly an expropriation of capital from the thrift industry, for no particular reason other than that we happen to be surviving thrifts."

It has been an article of faith in policy circles here that Fico specifically was the thrift industry's responsibility, as were the "Refcorp" bonds sold in the massive 1989 bailout.

But what's most radical about Mr. Trafton's argument is his suggestion that SAIF itself isn't really the thrift industry's obligation at all. Instead, he said, it's the federal government's problem.

"It's a government liability," he said. "They are the ones that enacted deposit insurance in the first place. As part of the funding of that liability, insurance premiums are assessed. That does not relieve the government of its liability."

That's a bold view, and it's one that many observers believe could come back to haunt the industry.


When the Bank Insurance Fund went bust in 1991, commercial banks were at pains to take responsibility for recapitalizing it. Bankers weren't motivated by a sense of altruism or civic responsibility but by the sure knowledge that anything the government gives, the government will want back - with interest.

You can almost hear lawmakers asking the questions. It's the government's insurance fund, you say? And you want to continue using it? Well, fine. But how about providing more in the way of low-fee checking for the poor and the elderly? And while we're at it, could you step up your lending to minority-owned small businesses?

"The banks took the view they did because they wanted to keep the government as far out of their pockets as they could," said Karen Shaw, president of ISD/Shaw Inc.

In the eyes of many bank and thrift lobbyists, Mr. Trafton's argument is an open invitation to government intrusion. "It's the slippery slope," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

And once the industry starts down the slope, it's anybody's guess how far it might slide.

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