WASHINGTON - If deposit insurance is increased to $200,000 per account, banks will have to pay premiums for the first time in four years, according to federal regulators.
If coverage were doubled, insured deposits could swell to as much as $3.3 trillion, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. officials have told bankers in meetings over the last four months. An estimated $400 billion increase in insured deposits would cause the ratio of federal reserves to insured deposits to dip below the statutory minimum, forcing all banks to pay for deposit insurance again.
If the deposit insurance funds were not replenished within one year after falling below the minimum reserve ratio, all banks would have to pay 23 cents for each $100 of domestic deposits. Concerns over paying that kind of price for a coverage hike could be a serious obstacle to winning industry support, said Diane Casey, president of America's Community Bankers.
"Our big question all along is what is this going to cost us?" Ms. Casey said Monday. "Is raising the coverage limit worth 23 basis points? I think that puts it at a very high cost, and I think most of our members would say it is too high."
But others argue against accepting the FDIC's numbers too readily.
"They don't know the exact number of insured deposit increases - no one does," said James Chessen, chief economist for the American Bankers Association. "Our own numbers suggest the FDIC's are too high. We should be calm, and be very careful about jumping to any conclusions from this."
The agency was scheduled to release a menu of legislative reforms for deposit insurance on Monday, but that has been indefinitely delayed by FDIC Chairman Donna Tanoue's absence. Ms. Tanoue is currently in Hawaii, attending to a family emergency. But while the plan is postponed, debate over raising the amount of coverage goes on.
Ms. Tanoue first floated the idea at a speech in March. Community bankers adamantly support the coverage increase, despite sharp criticism from Senate Banking Committee Chairman Phil Gramm, Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers, and Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan.
The numbers released by the agency are the first official assessment of the potential effects of reform. They were part of a presentation made by the FDIC's insurance division director, Art Murton, to bankers throughout the country at three roundtables held in April, May, and June. Agency officials were careful to note that the $400 billion increase in insured deposits was a high-end estimate, and that the actual amount could be significantly lower. But at $400 billion, the reserve ratio could drop to 1.21% from 1.38% - well below the 1.25% minimum.
As part of his presentation, Mr. Murton also provided evidence that the current risk-based premium index may be flawed. Today, 92.4% of the country's 10,171 banks and thrifts - which hold 96.6% of domestic deposits - are classified in the top, or "1-A," category and pay nothing for deposit insurance.
The FDIC maintains that the health of banks in that category varies widely, and the current nine-box matrix for rating banks should be overhauled to more precisely measure their risk profiles. The agency provided a stark analysis of the best and worst institutions within that top category in terms of percentage of chargeoffs relative to loans, loan yield, commercial loan growth, and volatile liability growth.
But some in the industry are skeptical of the analysis.
"We shouldn't look at extremes to try and prove the case," said Mr. Chessen. "They are taking the best in one area and comparing it to the worst in that area. You can't draw conclusions of the whole 1-A category from that."
At least one analyst argued that the task of incorporating risk into the price of premiums is unworkable.
"It can't be done properly," said Bert Ely, an industry consultant based in Alexandria, Va. "In order for it to work, it has to be based on leading indicators. Right now it is based on capital and loan-loss provisions. By the time you look at that, the damage is already done."
The FDIC also released information comparing the current concentration of core deposits to 1980. Almost 50% of total deposits are held by only 46 institutions, all with over $20 billion in assets. In 1980, it was the community banks that held the lion's share of deposits, but now they hold only 21%. The agency also noted that larger banks are involved in more diverse activities, like swaps or issuing subordinated debt, while most institutions are not.
"I think the FDIC should worry about this," said Karen Thomas, director of regulatory affairs for the Independent Community Bankers of America. "As deposits grow more concentrated, it creates greater and greater exposure for the FDIC by a single institution."