WASHINGTON - The next move in the BIF/SAIF debate is Ricki Tigert Helfer's.

The Clinton administration, Congress, and the banking and thrift industries are all waiting to hear the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. chairman's prescription.

The woman who took charge of the FDIC five months ago has many choices, but none are painless.

Ms. Helfer did not seem too concerned about the looming gap in banks and thrift deposit insurance costs on Jan. 31, when the FDIC proposed dropping bank premiums to four cents while leaving thrift rates at 24 cents. Ms. Helfer calmly predicted the Savings Association Insurance Fund would lose just 2% of its deposits a year.

But in the last two weeks, the landscape has changed dramatically as several of the thrift industry's largest players have announced plans to charter banks and shift deposits to the Bank Insurance Fund.

If thrifts succeed in siphoning deposits out of SAIF, it could shrink the thrift fund's income. Less revenue could trigger a default on Financing Corp. bonds, which were issued to commence the industry's cleanup in 1987.

Beyond the threat of default, less money coming in pushes the fund's recapitalization date beyond 2002. The thrift fund must hold $1.25 for every $100 of insured deposits before thrift premiums may be lowered. The bank fund is expected to hit that 1.25% level by July 31.

Ms. Helfer will get plenty of advice Friday as the FDIC - for the first time in five years - holds a public hearing. Thrift and bank executives as well as their trade association representatives are scheduled to sound off.

Ms. Helfer says she has not chosen a course of action.

But she did say in an interview last month that the banking industry - particularly the American Bankers Association - must come to the table and compromise.

"What I'm having difficulty understanding is how some elements of the industry look at the issue and say there's no Fico problem, there's no SAIF capitalization problem," Ms. Helfer said. "On the face of it, one cannot reach that conclusion."

The ABA has denied from the get-go that there is any problem.

Ms. Helfer said the ABA needs to drop this position and start negotiating. Asked if the eventual outcome will end up costing bankers money, Ms. Helfer admitted: "certainly some of the solutions could involve costing the banking industry some money."

People who have talked with the FDIC chief privately say she would like to use the money the Resolution Trust Corp. has not spent to recapitalize SAIF. One source said Ms. Helfer characterized these billions as "manna from heaven."

In the interview, Ms. Helfer would not discuss specific solutions.

"There are a lot of different possibilities," she said. "And it really depends in the end I think - and I'm really serious about this - everybody who's got an interest...should be a part of the solution.

Ms. Helfer goes to Capitol Hill next week to testify on BIF/SAIF before House Banking's financial institutions subcommittee. Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D'Amato also has pledged to delve into the issue.

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