WASHINGTON - The thrift industry's lobbying machine moved into high gear last week when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. decided to cut bank premiums while keeping rates high for savings institutions.

Thrifts say the striking difference in premium rates will make it hard for them to compete with commercial banks. And the industry's chief trade group is pushing for banks to share some of the costs of the savings and loan cleanup, a top trade group official said.

David E.A. Carson, chairman of America's Community Bankers, said last week that his association has given up efforts to force a merger in the Bank Insurance Fund and the Savings Association Insurance Fund. However, it still hopes to obtain bank industry help in paying for the bonds that helped finance the 1987 effort to recapitalize the SAIF.

If the trade group's push is successful, the cost of the bonds would add about 2.5 basis points per $100 of domestic deposits to banks' deposit insurance costs.

Until the thrift fund is fully recapitalized, the thrift lobby wants savings institutions to pay just 5 basis points more in premiums than banks, not the 19-basis-point margins they now anticipate.

However, the thrift industry's trade groups are not united on the initiative, and the banking industry is almost unanimous in its opposition.

Patrick Forte, president of the Association of Financial Services Holding Companies, said the other trade group's position is hopeless anyway.

"Finding one way or the other to have the BIF-insured institutions share the problem is probably unrealistic," Mr. Forte said.

The 1987 bonds figure into the thrift industry's current crisis in a major way. The $8.1 billion in outstanding Financing Corp. or "Fico" bonds carry interest charges of $779 million a year, sapping 44% of the industry's premium dollar.

The FDIC cannot lower thrift premiums until the thrift fund holds assets equal to 1.25% of insured deposits. But the Fico bond burden is so heavy that the thrift fund is not expected to recapitalize until well into the next century.

The annual cost of the Fico bonds should be shared "with all insured depositories," said Mr. Carson, who is also chairman, president, and chief executive officer of People's Bank in Bridgeport, Conn.

The thrift executive said thrifts that survived the crisis should not be penalized more than banks.

But Mr. Forte's group wants Congress to shore up the thrift fund with the money left over from the Resolution Trust Corp. "The Fico bonds represent the residue of failed institutions," Mr. Forte said. "That's what the RTC is about."

America's Community Bankers agrees that would be ideal, but such a change would likely require congressional action.

That proposal proved politically unpopular during debate on the last RTC funding bill, when Congress attached tight conditions to the use of any money the RTC did not spend disposing of failed thrifts. The thrift cleanup agency is expected to have $10 billion to $15 billion in appropriated funds left over.

But Mr. Forte thinks "there is a reasonable possibility" lawmakers would allow the money to be shifted to the thrift fund. "It is a new Congress," he points out.

The industry's regulator isn't pushing any one solution, but is sounding the alarm.

"The really dramatic recovery in the health of the thrift industry has been misinterpreted by some as evidence that there is no reason to worry about the effect of the premium disparity on the industry and the SAIF," said Jonathan L. Fiechter, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision. "I couldn't disagree more with this conclusion."

Mr. Fiechter has called for the FDIC to hold hearings on the looming gulf between banks and thrifts in deposit insurance costs. "I see only a downside from delaying addressing this problem until there is a clear and present danger," he said.

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