WASHINGTON - Just days before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. meets to consider cutting bank premiums, Chairman Ricki Tigert Helfer said the range of rates charged should be widened.

"It would seem to make sense for the 8-basis-point spread to widen, probably considerably," Ms. Helfer said in a luncheon speech Wednesday to Women in Housing and Finance, a professional organization.

Currently, the FDIC charges from 23 cents to 31 cents per $100 of domestic deposits.

When the Bank Insurance Fund's recapitalization is complete, probably at midyear, the FDIC will lower premiums substantially for 90% of the industry, Ms. Helfer said. Banking experts are predicting rates will fall to 5 cents for these well-capitalized banks, saving the industry about $4.5 billion a year.

Ms. Helfer said she could not reveal the likely range because it will be contained in a proposal at the agency's Jan. 31 board meeting.

But, she said, "premiums must be large enough to be a real incentive for banks to improve their condition, without being so large that they cause more problems than risk-based premiums would resolve."

After three months in the post, Ms. Helfer said keeping the FDIC independent has emerged as her highest priority.

Noting that the agency has the final decision on whether new national or state banking charters are issued, Ms. Helfer repeated her plans to resume use of the agency's authority to check the work of the other regulators.

"We need meaningful - I did not say 'duplicative' or 'burdensome' - backup authority," she said. "Two sets of eyes are not necessary in every case, but they may be necessary in problem situations, changing circumstances, and where there are other risks to the deposit insurance funds."

Comptroller of the Currency Eugene A. Ludwig and acting Office of Thrift Supervision director Jonathan Fiechter have protested the use of the FDIC's backup authority in the past.

Ms. Helfer also said the FDIC must shift its focus to new risks, now that the banking industry's crisis is over.

"Clearly the purpose of concentrating on risk is to change the FDIC from an organization skilled in crisis management to an organization dedicated to crisis prevention," Ms. Helfer said.

Ms. Helfer has created a task force to analyze the risks posed by capital markets activities such as derivatives. The group should begin reporting its recommendations this spring.

The FDIC also is surveying its examiners in search of any signs that bank credit underwriting standards are slipping. Examiner questionnaires are being field-tested this month, she said.

Sounding more like a Republican than a Democrat, Ms. Helfer also named excessive regulation as a risk.

"The focus on risk cuts another way - to eliminating or reducing regulation where it no longer reflects risk to the insurance funds," she said.

She identified the Glass-Steagall Act as a law that has outlived its usefulness and is hampering banks' ability to compete.

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