WASHINGTON -- The Independent Bankers Association of America said Thursday it will oppose a merger of the bank and thrift insurance funds.

"We'll fight it to the death," said IBAA executive vice president Kenneth A. Guenther.

Preparing for a fight on Capitol Hill next year, combatants in this battle have been choosing up sides for months. The American Bankers Association came out against a merger after the Savings and Community Bankers of America began promoting one in March.

Members Include Thrifts

But the Independent Bankers have been on the fence. The trade group counts thrifts among its members. The association also has as members some of the 700 banks that pay thrift premiums because they bought savings and loan deposits and could not switch them to the Bank Insurance Fund.

"It's a bedeviling situation for any banking trade group," Mr. Guenther said.

Right now banks and thrifts pay about the same for deposit insurance, approximately 24 cents for every $100 of domestic deposits. But a big gap in bank and thrift prices is expected by the end of next year or in early 1996.

That's because the Bank Insurance Fund has been quickly rebuilding, while the Savings Association Insurance Fund is still struggling. The thrift fund must give up close to $800 million every year to pay the interest on bonds sold to finance the thrift industry's bailout.

Congress barred the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. from lowering insurance premiums until a fund's ratio of reserves to deposits hits 1.25%. The bank fund is closing in on that target, while the thrift fund is still a decade away from meeting it.

The looming rate disparity, which could reach 18 cents, has the thrift industry and its regulators nervous.

The California League of Savings Institutions has been touting a fund merger, trying to convince the banking industry that it would postpone a premium reduction by a year.

The SAIF Advisory Committee is planning to deliver to Congress a new report on the benefits of a merger this month. The government-appointed board endorsed a merger last spring.

Finally, the Office of Thrift Supervision is sounding warning bells about the problems that will beset thrifts once they have to pay more for insurance than banks.

Acting OTS Director Jonathan Fiechter has privately endorsed rescuing SAIF by shifting about $10 billion from the Resolution Trust Corp. This is mortey that has been appropriated to the RTC but is not expected to be needed for the industry's bailout.

The Clinton administration is aware of the looming problem, but officials said Wednesday that no policy decisions have been made yet.

Mr. Guenther said his group supports using leftover RTC money to rebuild the thrift fund. An infusion of $10 billion would be more than enough to send SAIF over the 1.25% level.

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