WASHINGTON — Though deposit insurance reform could be months or years away, the central question for bankers is already clear: How much are they willing to pay for increased coverage, rebates, or other plums?

Federal regulators have unanimously endorsed proposals that would force banks and thrifts to pay premiums again for the first time in five years, and many top officials have vigorously opposed any plan that would increase the current coverage limit of $100,000 per account. Yet banking industry officials have strongly argued against paying premiums, and they continue to push for raising the coverage limit.

Sen. Tim Johnson, the chairman of the Senate Banking financial institutions subcommittee, hinted to the industry that it should not expect to get something for nothing.

“It is important … we recognize that a balanced meal involves both the spinach and the dessert,” the South Dakota Democrat said at a hearing Thursday. “That is hard reality.”

Each side, for the moment, seems dug in.

Regulators — except for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. — insist that raising coverage would weaken market discipline and invite risk-taking by banks and thrifts.

The Federal Reserve Board “does not support this recommendation and believe that, at this time, the current ceiling should be maintained,” Fed Governor Laurence H. Meyer testified at a House hearing two weeks ago. “In the board’s judgment, it is unlikely that increased coverage, even by indexing, today would add measurably to the stability of the banking system.”

But the industry is equally adamant about higher premiums.

The American Bankers Association “will oppose any… reform legislation that results in an increase in premiums when the insurance funds are above the 1.25% designated reserve ratio, as they are today,” Jeff L. Plagge, the president and chief executive officer of First National Bank of Waverly in Iowa, testified Thursday before the Senate Banking subcommittee. “The ABA will oppose deposit insurance legislation that imposes new insurance costs.”

“That could potentially be a deal killer for us,” said Diane Casey, the president of America’s Community Bankers. “I know our members have very, very serious objections to paying premiums.”

Even those in the middle, such as community bankers willing to allow increased premiums if the coverage level were raised, are having difficulty seeing a way out.

“Bankers are going to have severe problems with pricing if it is not tied to substantial deposit insurance limit increases,” said Kenneth A. Guenther, the president and CEO of the Independent Community Bankers of America. “Speaking for my constituency, community banks had tied acceptance of some premiums to increased individual coverage levels. That is not where the regulators are. In a way, they have made reaching an industry consensus that includes pricing more difficult.”

Sen. Johnson outlined possible compromises. He said that the industry might have to accept partial coverage increases, such as higher limits for retirement accounts or municipal deposits. In exchange, they would have to pay some kind of premiums. (Currently, 92% of banks and thrifts pay no deposit insurance fees.)

As if these issues were not challenging enough, the weakening economy could complicate matters further. Analysts said the recent failure of $2.3 billion-asset Superior Bank of Hinsdale, Ill., would make it harder for banks to make their case against fees.

“It’s a lot different to recommend deposit insurance when there is a theoretical possibility of a couple of large failures, versus doing so when there is one down and maybe more coming,” said Karen Shaw Petrou, the managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics in Washington. “What it does is that it may force some of the trade associations to rethink their long-standing positions, and it also changes the political landscape.”

Bert Ely, an independent analyst in Alexandria, Va., said the failure would give rise to additional proposals, including giving the FDIC more back-up exam authority and possibly eliminating the Office of Thrift Supervision, Superior’s primary regulator.

“You bet this stuff is going to come up,” Mr. Ely said.


From Our Archive

Subscribe Now

Access to authoritative analysis and perspective and our data-driven report series.

14-Day Free Trial

No credit card required. Complete access to articles, breaking news and industry data.