WASHINGTON - Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato criticized bankers Tuesday for their "cavalier attitude" toward the problems of the Savings Association Insurance Fund.
"I believe we really have an obligation to deal with this and deal with it in a manner that will bring stability to the industry," Sen. D'Amato said.
If nothing is done to shore up the underfunded thrift insurance fund, he said, "it's going to be something lots of people are going to regret - even some of my friends who take a rather cavalier attitude on the other side of the equation in the banking industry.
"They might have a temporary advantage, but in terms of the entire industry it could bring grave harm."
Sen. D'Amato's remarks came during an oversight hearing on the Resolution Trust Corp., which on July 1 hands over responsibility for backing thrift depositors to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s savings association fund.
As of March 31, that fund contained about $2.2 billion - $4.3 billion less than required by law. "The failure of a single large thrift or a couple of medium-size thrifts could bankrupt the fund," FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer said at Tuesday's meeting.
Ms. Helfer and other members of the Thrift Depositor Protection Oversight Board, which oversees the RTC, seconded Sen. D'Amato's urgings that something be done about the FDIC's Savings Association Insurance Fund and the looming disparity in premiums between it and the much-healthier Bank Insurance Fund.
But they also followed the advice of the oversight board's chairman, Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin, in not discussing the particulars of how the thrift fund can be saved.
"It might be more readily doable if we don't discuss it in a public forum at this point," Mr. Rubin said.
Still, Sen. Paul Sarbanes, D-Md., did try to wring out of Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan, a member of the oversight board member, an opinion on whether lowering interest rates might not help ailing thrifts - and by extension the savings insurance fund.
Replied Mr. Greenspan: "I would scarcely argue, unless you have a very major problem in the broader financial system, that monetary policy could bring significant improvement."
The senators asked relatively few questions about the actual operations of the RTC. This was not the case on the other side of Capitol Hill, where the House Banking subcommittee on oversight and investigations held hearings Monday and Tuesday on the agency's failure to collect more money from the executives of failed Texas thrifts.
Current and former employees of the RTC's Dallas office testified that several high-profile cases were dropped because of bungling, turf wars, and perhaps political pressure.
Thomas Hindes, RTC associate general counsel, responded that the agency "has had its job made more difficult, with a resulting loss to taxpayers, due to congressional inaction on some critical matters presented to it over the years."