WASHINGTON - Days before the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. holds a rare hearing on the plight of the thrift insurance fund, Chairman Ricki Tigert Helfer suggested banks would soon be drawn into the debate.

"I agree wholeheartedly" with the General Accounting Office's assessment that today's thrifts are no more responsible for the S&L crisis than are today's commercial banks, she said.

Asked whether that suggests the Bank Insurance Fund should help pay the Fico obligation of the Savings Association Insurance Fund, she said: "It suggests that everybody needs to be part of the solution."

Jonathan Fiechter, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, concurred: "The ultimate solution will likely require compromises and a sharing of the burden."

Mr. Fiechter is one of the FDIC's four directors.

In speeches to America's Community Bankers, the big thrift trade group, Ms. Helfer and Mr. Fiechter both warned on Tuesday that the savings fund is dangerously underfunded.

"One large thrift failure - or a significant downturn in the economy leading to higher-than-anticipated losses - could render the SAIF insolvent," Ms. Helfer said. "The safety cushion is simply too thin."

Noting that SAIF's $2 billion reserve insures about $720 billion in deposits, Mr. Fiechter said, "At this level of capitalization, the SAIF is extremely vulnerable."

Given those troubles, the government will have to find a solution to the problem, both regulators said.

The FDIC board said the Bank Insurance Fund would reach the required 1.25% reserve ratio by midsummer, which would allow the board to cut bank insurance premiums dramatically.

Ms. Helfer, speaking to the thrift trade group, noted that the agency has "not yet made any final decisions" on whether to lower bank premiums.

But, she added, once the bank fund reaches the 1.25% ratio, "the FDIC believes that it is compelled by law to lower BIF premiums."

Bob Schmermund, spokesman for America's Community Bankers, said, "We applaud her leadership on trying to bring the bankers to the table. This is an issue for the entire banking industry."

House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach downplayed the problems facing SAIF, telling the thrift executives that they should be more concerned about competition from companies like Microsoft.

"The bigger issue for everybody in this room is how to deal with the information highway rather than how to deal with the BIF-SAIF issue," the Iowa Republican said.

The FDIC's Ms. Helfer also warned that "the Fico obligation will run into debt service problems. It is a question of when, not a question of whether." The SAIF could have trouble paying interest on the Fico bonds starting in 1998 if the fund's deposit base shrinks 8% annually, she said.

Mr. Fiechter urged thrifts to lobby Congress to encourage a solution to the looming gap between what thrifts and banks will pay for deposit insurance. "We now have a rare opportunity to address an emerging problem - before it has a chance to grow to crisis proportions - in a relatively favorable economic climate," he said.

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