WASHINGTON - Official Washington has awakened to the fact that by yearend thrifts will be paying six times more than banks for deposit insurance.

The looming gap in bank and thrift deposit insurance rates has plenty of people worried that the Savings Association Insurance Fund is headed for disaster.

Hearings will be held in both the House and Senate to delve into the impact of such a sharp difference in rates. The Treasury Department is in the act, too, drawing up plans to recapitalize SAIF and ensure payment of Financing Corp., or FICO, bonds.

In addition, the General Accounting Office is scheduled to weigh in with a report on the issue early next month. The GAO report, according to sources who have seen a draft, concludes that the rate disparity will pose a competitive threat to savings and loans that could jeopardize the safety and soundness of the industry.

The report lays out various solutions, but beyond counseling Congress to take action, the GAO report does not recommend any specific action.

And contrary to a rumor making the rounds, the congressional watchdog agency does not propose limiting the reduction in bank premiums to 10 cents.

House Banking's financial institutions subcommittee will take up the issue on March 23. The Senate Banking Committee also plans to hold a hearing, although no date has been set.

While the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. maintains the rate difference will not sink SAIF or the thrift industry, the agency has scheduled a rare hearing March 17 to get the public's views.

The thrift industry is up in arms over the FDIC's Jan. 31 proposal to cut bank deposit insurance premiums to an average of 4 cents for every $100 of domestic deposits. When the reduction takes effect in the fall, thrifts will still be paying an average of 24 cents.

Because the thrift industry is anchored in California, lawmakers from the Golden State are asking lots of questions. Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., called FDIC Chairman Ricki Tigert Helfer up to Capitol Hill last week for a private chat about the agency's plans.

Even Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan is waving a red flag.

"I do think it is a problem," Mr. Greenspan testified last week before the House Banking Committee. "If you are dealing with 15 or 20 basis points, that is not an insignificant competitive disadvantage.

"I think frankly this will be the most difficult issue to confront the House Banking Committee," he said.

Under pressure, the FDIC may be backing off its claim that the rate differential will not aversely affect thrifts or SAIF. The FDIC plans to come out with a new analysis soon that lays out what will happen to SAIF under different scenarios.

Ms. Helfer has stressed that the thrift industry's fund would recapitalize quickly if its $780 million annual FICO payment was removed. The FICO bonds pay interest on the zero-coupon bonds that were floated to begin the thrift industry's cleanup in 1987.

But it is the GAO report that could spark congressional action. The report assumes the rate differential will "pose significant risks for SAIF's long-term outlook," according to a draft of the report.

The American Bankers Association is concerned.

"We've seen the GAO's history," said Edward Yingling, ABA's executive director of government affairs. "They are always overly negative" and "grossly out of whack."

It was a GAO audit requiring huge reserves against potential future losses that forced the bank insurance fund into insolvency in 1991. Losses turned out much lower than the GAO projected.

While the ABA expects "aggressive oversight hearings," Mr. Yingling said no decision has been made on the Hill to legislate.

"We are absolutely convinced that there is no emergency," he added. The ABA plans to fly in 100 industry leaders March 7-8 to lobby congressmen.

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