WASHINGTON - After years of waiting, bankers are optimistic that Congress will finally restore some luster to individual retirement accounts.

The Senate Finance Committee has approved legislation that would significantly increase the number of people who can qualify for tax-free IRAs. Singles with annual incomes of $85,000 a year and couples making up to $100,000 would deposit up to $2,000 tax-free in an IRA. The income caps currently are $25,000 for individuals and $40,000 for couples.

The bill also would create a "back-load" IRA, in which contributions would be nondeductible, but interest earned could be withdrawn tax-free after five years. These withdrawals would be permitted for first-time home purchases, college tuition, or to ease major financial stresses such as unemployment and medical expenses.

The bill the House passed in April includes back-load IRAs but would not change the income limits for individuals and couples.

With these changes, lawmakers - led by Sens. William V. Roth Jr., R- Del., and John Breaux, D-La., as well as Rep. Bill Thomas, R-Calif. - are aiming to reverse the negative savings trend of the late 1980s.

After the 1981 tax act allowed tax-deductible IRA contributions for anyone, annual contributions skyrocketed from $3.4 billion to $38 billion by 1985. When Congress placed a maximum income level on IRA deductions in 1986, contributions fell to $10 billion by 1990.

The changes could lure more deposits into banks.

"I think there's something psychologically very seductive about encouraging people to save by telling them that they can reduce their tax payments, too," said Margo Thorning, chief economist at the American Council for Capital Formation.

Herb Spira, tax counsel for the Independent Bankers Association of America, said the changes "should benefit the banks that are most reliant on domestic deposits."

But bankers's expectations are modest.

"There has been a lot of dissemination of IRAs into mutual funds and other areas," said Don Corrigan, chairman and CEO of Slade's Ferry Bank in Somerset, Mass. "So I don't really anticipate a huge change in the amount of money streaming into banks. We'll get our share, though."

"The IRAs would be an alternative funding vehicle for people who are seeking higher yields," said Bruce McCall, senior vice president at First of America Bancorp. "Of course, there would be some shifting from current deposits (into IRAs), but I think there would be a net gain to banks."

The IRA changes that emerge from Congress could be good for consumers and bankers alike. Growth in savings inevitably leads to a growth in deposits, so savers as well as depository institutions benefit.

"I don't think it's a question so much of 'What does this mean for banks?' as 'What does this mean for customers?'" said Donna Fisher, director of tax and accounting with the ABA.

"From a socioeconomic standpoint, I think that it's the right thing to do," Mr. McCall said. "It will encourage Americans to increase their savings, and encourage them to provide for their own retirements. So I think all of that would be very positive."

Bankers and their lobbyists say the promise of more savings, more money invested for retirement, and more deposits for banks should help the IRA provisions survive as the tax bill moves into the budget reconciliation package. But President Clinton has threatened to veto the budget bill.

Mr. Serb writes for the Medill News Service.

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