WASHINGTON - The vote to reduce the banking industry's deposit insurance premium is being delayed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

When the 83% cut was proposed in January, FDIC officials said they would vote on it in mid-May. However, the issue has not been slated for consideration.

Taking questions after a speech to the Federal Reserve Bank of Chicago last Thursday, FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer was asked when the FDIC would adopt the new 4-cent premium. She said she did not know, because her staff is still reading the 3,200 comment letters submitted on the plan.

"I don't know when the staff will return to the board with a recommendation," Ms. Helfer added.

Bert Ely, an industry consultant who posed the question, said, "She ducked the question. ... They are still looking at the comment letters. That's a stall if I ever heard one.

"It sounds like they've changed the game plan from what they announced back in January," said Mr. Ely, president of Ely & Associates, Alexandria, Va.

While the game plan was to vote on the rate reduction in May, the FDIC never intended to reduce premiums before the third quarter. The agency admits it will collect more premium revenue than the Bank Insurance Fund needs, so it plans to refund any overpayments.

But that's the rub for bankers. The agency was supposed to explain at the mid-May meeting how those refunds would be made.

"Bankers would be very upset if they are charged 23 cents (in the third quarter), and there has been no meeting of the FDIC to lay out explicitly how they are going to get this money refunded," said Edward L. Yingling, the American Bankers Association's executive director of government relations.

Premium reductions won't kick in until the third quarter because the bank fund must have $1.25 in reserves for every $100 of insured deposits before rates can be lowered. While agency officials have conceded that target will be met sometime in June or July, the FDIC claims it will not be able to verify the Bank Insurance Fund's reserves until September.

Banks have been arguing for months that the FDIC is being overly cautious and that the premium reduction should be made sooner.

Industry sources worried Friday that the FDIC is delaying its vote on bank premiums to pressure the industry into a deal to bolster the Savings Association Insurance Fund.

"We hope that Chairman Helfer is not leveraging the banking industry in terms of the timing of the premium cut," said Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

Under current law, Mr. Guenther noted, the FDIC must set rates for the bank and thrift funds separately.

Officials from the FDIC along with the Treasury Department have been meeting with congressional staffers on a plan to inject money into the undercapitalized thrift fund.

A strategy appeared to be in place last week, but negative reaction to details that were leaked seems to have slowed a public announcement of the plan.

Administration officials last week were trying to organize a meeting with bank and thrift industry representatives in the hopes of finding some common ground.

Sources agree that any plan is likely to have three parts that involve hitting thrifts with a one-time fee to bring SAIF up to the 1.25% ratio; forcing banks to pay about 75% of the yearly interest tab on the 30-year bonds floated to start the S&L bailout; and using leftover Resolution Trust Corp. funds to cover unexpected losses on failed thrifts.

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