WASHINGTON - Thrifts and banks hoping to blunt the earnings impact of capitalizing the Savings Association Insurance Fund by writing off the expense over several years can forget it.

The Clinton administration was game for the idea, but the accounting profession's rulemaking body was not.

"If you're talking about spreading it over several years, the only mechanism to do that is to call it an asset in the meantime," said Timothy S. Lucas, staff director of the Financial Accounting Standards Board. "It didn't look much like an asset to me."

Trying to build support for its plan to rescue the thrift fund, the administration this year floated the idea of letting institutions write off over three years the $6.1 billion cost of rebuilding the SAIF.

Mr. Lucas said the Norwalk, Conn.-based accounting board, which decides what constitutes generally accepted accounting principles, or GAAP, got several calls from regulators and others in Washington asking whether such accounting treatment were possible.

"All of it was very hypothetical," he said, and the accounting standards board never officially pronounced on the subject.

But the opposition voiced by Mr. Lucas and other FASB staff members was enough to stop the three-year writeoff in its tracks, said Marti Sworobuk, a lobbyist for America's Community Bankers, the thrift trade group.

Mr. Lucas said he didn't understand why thrifts would want to spread out the cost.

"In most cases," he said, "it's often considered more palatable to get something like this behind you." Spreading the expense over several years would probably hurt stock values more than accounting for it in one fell swoop, he added.

Ms. Sworobuk said the three-year writeoff "would have given institutions greater flexibility." But she agreed with Mr. Lucas that "the market will not penalize institutions for a significant drop in earnings for that one, stand-alone period."

Whether regulators would penalize institutions for a significant drop in capital is another matter.

Kenneth Ryder, director of research and analysis at the Office of Thrift Supervision, said his agency isn't contemplating any change in regulatory accounting.

But Mr. Ryder said the administration's savings fund plan addresses regulatory capital implications by allowing the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to exempt institutions with low capital levels from paying the one- time recapitalization fee of 85 to 90 basis points.

These thrifts would instead be required to keep paying insurance premiums at current levels for the next four years.

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