WASHINGTON - In a recent letter to Congress, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Ricki Helfer asked for the power to return extra premium income to banks.

"The FDIC seeks the discretionary authority to rebate deposit insurance premiums to avoid excessive buildup in an insurance fund," Ms. Helfer wrote. "Given the difficulty of forecasting (expenses) accurately, under certain circumstances, a significant buildup in the insurance fund might occur."

When Congress revoked the agency's power to rebate premiums in 1991, lawmakers figured the FDIC would simply lower rates to keep the fund at its required reserve ratio of $1.25 for every $100 in insured deposits, she said.

Ms. Helfer's Aug. 25 letter to Rep. Marge Roukema also said that it would be best to combine the bank and thrift insurance funds at the end of a calendar year. The government's plan to rescue the thrift fund includes merging it into the Bank Insurance Fund.

"We strongly recommend that a merger of the funds be made effective as of the end of a calendar year," Ms. Helfer told the New Jersey Republican.

Ms. Helfer also said the agency would need about six months lead time to make "programming and reporting changes."

Rep. Roukema, who is chairwoman of the House Banking Committee's financial institutions subcommittee, had asked Ms. Helfer for details about the rescue plan.

Like many bankers, Rep. Roukema wanted to know how the FDIC plans to handle the 2.5-cent fee that would be levied against the banking industry's deposits.

The fee, included in the rescue package, is designed to cover 75% of the annual interest payments on Financing Corp. bonds, or about $600 million.

Rep. Roukema, in a letter to the FDIC early last month, asked whether banks would pay an extra 2.5 cents or whether the FDIC planned to fold the fee into its new, lower 4.4-cent premium.

If the fee were in place today, Ms. Helfer explained, the premium would be 6.9 cents.

"If currently favorable conditions in the banking industry continue to prevail," however, the FDIC may lower its premium rates in January when the fee would kick in, Ms. Helfer said. If that's the case, she said banks would pay less than 6.9 cents.

"It is not possible to predict the rates that are likely to be adopted by the FDIC for the six-month assessment period beginning Jan. 1, 1996," she noted.

The FDIC will set the premium for January to June in October. The bank fund reached its reserve target in April or May. Next week the agency plans to announce how much money it will refund to banks that were charged too much.

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