the House Banking Committee has been a ray of hope for bankers seeking a broad remedy for the Savings Association Insurance Fund, but the future is still cloudy.
Bank lobbyists were jubilant when members of a House Banking subcommittee voiced support earlier this month for a comprehensive solution over the narrow financial fix supported by Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato.
On the surface, the House's approach would give bankers what they want: a package that recapitalizes the thrift fund, merges it with the Bank Insurance Fund, and creates a single charter for the two industries.
A new charter is particularly important for larger banks. If Congress were to take the best of each industry's powers, banks would be able to underwrite and sell insurance, among other things.
The American Bankers Association and other bank groups see the charter merger as a reasonable payback for helping capitalize the thrift fund.
But there are some big question marks facing the House plan, and bankers find at the end that they're not as happy as they expected to be.
In an interview last week, Rep. Bill McCollum, a key player in the banking committee's effort to rebuild the thrift insurance fund, said he is leaning towards a plain-vanilla bank charter.
"It's more likely that we'll do away with the powers thrifts have, rather than expanding any other powers," the Florida Republican said.
"The most important thing is that there is a level playing field, so that all parties are singing off the same sheet of music," Mr. McCollum argued.
On top of that, the House bill may also allow certain thrifts to hold onto powers they have at the time of enactment. That would be a "major no- no," according to Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America.
"Thrifts would be grandfathered with powers that banks don't have," Mr. Guenther said.
Rep. McCollum said he had "no preconceived notions" about whether to grandfather elements of the thrift industry. However, earlier this month he had circulated a sample charter merger bill that would have grandfathered unitary thrift holding companies.
Mr. McCollum did say he wants to merge of the funds and the charters as soon as the thrift fund reaches its mandated 1.25% reserve ratio.
He said the Senate Banking Committee's plan to infuse cash into the thrift fund and wait to merge it with the bank fund is simply a way to gain budget savings, since any insurance premiums thrifts pay into a capitalized fund can be accounted for as government income.
Such a delay is "simply not good public policy," Rep. McCollum said.
"Somebody in the budget business over in the Senate is saying, 'If we could delay it all this time, we could make some money,'" he added.
"But to heck with how this accounting looks - there's no good reason why you can't immediately proceed after you have a fully capitalized thrift fund," he added.
Another serious hurdle facing a House plan to get rid of the thrift charter is how to go about handling the "bad-debt reserve" issues. Currently, when thrifts switch to bank charters, they have to pay back the tax breaks they received on their bad-debt reserves. Unless Congress acts, thrifts may have to do the same when they lose their charter.
Rep. McCollum said that his committee is waiting for the administration's recommendations - promised for late September - on how to resolve the bad-debt reserve problem.