A predicted exodus from the Savings Association Insurance Fund has begun, with California's Golden West Financial Corp. leading the way.

Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Ricki Helfer said Friday that some thrifts had begun shifting deposits from the ailing savings association fund to the Bank Insurance Fund.

For one institution in particular, she said, "the numbers are quite large."

Ms. Helfer wouldn't identify the institution, but industry sources and call report data point to Golden West, the nation's third-largest thrift company.

From March 31 to Sept. 30 of last year, the deposits of Golden West's lead thrift, SAIF-insured World Savings and Loan Association, Oakland, Calif., dropped by $600 million, to $19.8 billion. Meanwhile, the deposits of World Savings Bank, Warren, N.J., a Bank Insurance Fund member acquired by Golden West in January 1995, exploded to $865 million, from $58 million. Fourth-quarter data are not yet available.

Customers can open deposits with the New Jersey-based savings bank at World Savings' California branches, and industry sources say interest rates are higher on the New Jersey accounts.

Citing a company policy against discussing business strategies, Golden West group senior vice president Dirk Adams refused to comment.

Few thrift companies are in a position to do what Golden West apparently is doing - they don't have BIF-insured subsidiaries. But some are preparing similar moves.

James F. Montgomery, chairman of Great Western Financial Corp., the nation's second-largest thrift, said it owns BIF-insured institutions in Colorado and Utah. While saying Great Western was not currently trying to shift SAIF-insured deposits to its two BIF-insured thrifts, he said, "it is imminent."

Several big thrifts have applied to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to charter national banks that would be insured by the bank fund. The Comptroller's Office has not acted on those applications, but Jonathan Fiechter, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, said thrifts have been shrinking their deposit bases in other ways.

Some are relying more on repurchase agreements and Federal Home Loan Bank advances to raise money, he said, while others are simply losing business to commercial banks.

With the November decision by the FDIC to cut Bank Insurance Fund premiums to zero for most banks, thrifts now pay 23 basis points more for deposit insurance than banks.

Legislation to capitalize the savings fund with a one-time, $6 billion fee on SAIF deposits was approved by both the House and Senate last year but has been stalled by the budget deadlock between Congress and President Clinton.

Ms. Helfer said many more thrifts are contemplating big shifts of deposits out of the SAIF.

"A lot of institutions, I think, are simply waiting on the legislation," Ms. Helfer told reporters after speaking at a Conference of State Bank Supervisors meeting Friday in Washington. But if the legislation continues to languish, she added, many more thrifts will stop waiting.

"What you're starting to see is the early manifestation of what was talked about a year ago," said Paul Schosberg, president of America's Community Bankers and a leading advocate of the savings fund capitalization. "I don't expect an avalanche to appear suddenly, but I think what you're seeing is the beginning of a significant shift."

Some thrift industry advocates have argued that, as deposits leave the more expensive savings fund, it could set off a "death spiral" in which the SAIF becomes too small to pay for thrift failures or to keep up with the interest due on Financing Corp. bonds.

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