The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. on Thursday is expected to announce that the Bank Insurance Fund's reserve ratio dipped slightly in the fourth quarter.

The reduction would support recent warnings about the reserves from FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer. While small, it would be the first drop since 1992, when the industry began rebuilding the bank fund's reserves. The ratio peaked at $1.31 for every $100 of domestic deposits on Sept. 30.

A shrinking ratio is not a problem until it falls below 1.25% - the point at which the FDIC would hike premiums again. Currently, most banks are paying just $2,000 a year for the government's backing.

But Ms. Helfer has been warning the banking industry in speeches around the country that the fund's reserves are being eaten away by thrifts shifting deposits out of the weak Savings Association Insurance Fund.

"To be blunt, every time a thrift deposit shifts to the BIF, it goes without any reserves," Ms. Helfer said last week. "Bankers must pay for the reserves the thrift deposits do not carry."

Ms. Helfer's deputy for policy, Leslie Woolley, reiterated the concern in a speech Monday. "We are very concerned about deposit migration," she said. "It could get a lot worse."

After the speech, Ms. Woolley said the FDIC would detail the ratio's decline Thursday when it releases fourth-quarter statistics on the industry's performance.

FDIC officials are trying to convince bankers that legislation capitalizing the thrift fund is in their best interest. The bill would stem the flow of thrift deposits into the bank fund, but it also would require banks to pay the lion's share of interest due annually on Financing Corp. bonds. The industry opposes paying this $600-million-a-year tab.

"We all have to acknowledge that there is going to be some dilution," said James Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association. "But that doesn't come close to outweighing the cost of picking up Fico."

Mr. Chessen said deposit growth at commercial banks - not shifting thrift deposits - is likely to account for the decline.

Even if the $21 billion in deposits that left the thrift industry during 1995 shifted funds, the bank fund would still only decline by $260 million - less than the $300 million the fund made in interest on investments in the fourth quarter alone.

"One quarter's interest more than covers a year's worth of dilution," Mr. Chessen said.

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