The federal government is sending bankers a clear message: The deposit insurance funds will keep growing, but don't expect to get any refunds.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. tantalized bankers last week. By June, the agency said, the Bank Insurance Fund's reserves could exceed required minimums by $4 billion. That would mean the fund's cushion had doubled in a year.
The extra money in the bank fund-and in the resurgent Savings Association Insurance Fund-will continue to swell indefinitely, experts predict.
Although healthy banks and thrifts no longer pay deposit insurance premiums, low expenses and earnings from Treasury Department investments will continue propelling the funds' growth.
No federally insured bank or thrift has failed since August 1996, and no crisis is foreseen. The FDIC estimated that losses in the bank fund from failures and liquidations for the 12 months ending June 30, 1998, will be the lowest in a decade.
"If we continue to have a healthy economy, low failure rates, and modest deposit growth, we would expect for the foreseeable future the funds will continue to creep up," said Arthur J. Murton, director of the FDIC's insurance division.
Those rosy projections underscore the industry's demands for a rebate, said James H. Chessen, chief economist of the American Bankers Association. While Congress set the minimum reserve ratio at 1.25%, the bank fund currently has $1.35 for every $100 of insured deposits.
"The greater that number, the greater the focus on what ways that money could be used by the banks to provide banking services in the community," Mr. Chessen said.
Few expect the bankers to prevail on Capitol Hill because Congress has a vested interest in keeping the money. In the arcane world of budget balancing, income from the funds counts as revenue on the federal government's books even though it cannot be spent on other programs.
"There is no way Congress is going to give back that money," said Bert Ely, a financial services consultant in Alexandria, Va.
Regulators admit the pressure caused by the burgeoning $28 billion bank fund and the $9.3 billion thrift fund.
"When they build up and don't get used, they begin to look like honey pots," said Ellen S. Seidman, director of the Office of Thrift Supervision and the newest FDIC board member. "There are a lot of Pooh bears out there."
The political Catch-22 is that the more the funds expand, the more lawmakers will covet them. "It makes it less likely you will rebate it all," Ms. Seidman said.
Sens. Richard C. Shelby and Connie Mack made that clear when they dumped a rebate plan from their regulatory relief bill introduced Nov. 7.
A draft of the bill last August would have refunded more than $2 billion from the bank fund and returned money to the industry any time the fund's reserve ratio hit 1.30% of insured deposits. The lawmakers scrapped the idea, saying it would add to the budget deficit.
The thrift crisis lingers vividly in the minds of too many lawmakers to allow rebates, said Karen Shaw Petrou, president of consulting firm ISD/Shaw Inc.
Observers said the principal policy debate will focus on merging the funds while they are healthy, but this effort has reached an impasse because the banking industry insists that the thrift charter be eliminated first.
Regulators are researching other issues, too. FDIC officials are fine- tuning their risk-based premium system, and Ms. Seidman wants the agency to study whether the 1.25% reserve ratio is appropriate.