About midyear the Bank Insurance Fund will reach 1.25% of insured deposits, the level prescribed by Congress in the Financial Institutions Reform, Recovery, and Enforcement Act of 1989. Bank deposit insurance premiums are likely to decline from 23 cents per hundred dollars of deposits to about four cents.

The Savings Association Insurance Fund, which only in Washington could be labeled SAIF, stands at 0.28% of insured deposits. Unless additional money is found to fund the SAIF, it won't reach the required 1.25% level until some time after the turn of the century, at the earliest.

That would mean thrifts would continue to pay deposit insurance premiums of 23 cents per hundred for a long time to come. A premium differential of that magnitude does not sit well with thrift executives, who argue it will have a severely negative impact on their institutions.

Thrift executives believe they and their institutions have done nothing to deserve this fate. They did not create the debacle in their industry. Due to good fortune and good management they were able to survive it.

There is a lot of talk these days of merging the SAIF and BIF or otherwise finding a way to tap the banks to support the SAIF. Bankers bristle at the mere thought of it. For decades bankers considered thrifts their arch enemy - one that received preferential treatment from its regulator and from Congress to boot.

Bankers had no role in creating the thrift debacle. Indeed, banks suffered greatly from the collapse of their real estate portfolios in the wake of the thrift crisis. Moreover, the thrift crisis was instrumental in causing Congress to enact the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act, the most punitive piece of banking legislation in modern U.S. history.

Anyone who has studied or lived through the thrift crisis knows it resulted from massively failed government policies. Going back as far as the Hunt Commission report in 1972, experts warned that changes in the marketplace for the delivery of financial services were threatening the viability of thrifts.

The commission recommended that deposit interest rate controls be phased out in an orderly way, that thrifts be permitted to broaden their asset powers and to make variable rate loans, and that thrifts and banks be allowed to combine to create stronger, more diversified companies. The recommendations were ignored until nearly a decade later when the thrifts had their backs against the wall.

At that point the government hastily deregulated the thrifts. It didn't bother to distinguish between thrifts with strong balance sheets and management and those with neither. Nor did it take the obvious step of increasing its supervision of the deeply troubled industry.

In 1987, when Congress and the Reagan administration were still pretending the thrift insurance fund was not hopelessly insolvent, Congress authorized the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. to issue long-term Fico bonds. When Congress finally decided to face up to the problems in 1989, it abolished the FSLIC, created the SAIF, and provided that the Fico bonds would be honored by the SAIF.

The Fico bond payments will be $780 million per year for the next 25 years. The Fico payments currently consume over 40% of the SAIF's assessment income, and that percentage will increase, assuming the SAIF assessment base continues to shrink. The Office of Thrift Supervision estimates the SAIF would likely reach 1.25% of insured deposits in 1998 if it were relieved of the burden of paying off the Fico bonds.

Congress recognized when it passed FIRREA that the SAIF would probably need help in reaching the 1.25% level. FIRREA authorized the Treasury to contribute up to $32 billion to the SAIF, an authorization that was withdrawn by Congress in 1993.

It won't do for Congressional leaders to attempt to bully or threaten the banks. A solution to the SAIF problem needs to begin with an understanding that the banks have no legal or moral responsibility for the existence of the problem or its cure.

Once that is understood, it will be possible to explore avenues for enticing industry groups to participate in a solution. Mr. Isaac, a former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is chairman and chief executive officer of Secura Group, a financial services consulting firm based in Washington.

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