WASHINGTON - Lawmakers and government regulators agreed Wednesday at the first congressional hearing on the topic that the thrift insurance fund needs another bailout.
The only question is where to get the money.
"I can assure you that we will give this matter the most intense scrutiny in order to come to a solution," pledged Rep. Marge Roukema. The New Jersey Republican chaired Wednesday's hearing of House Banking's financial institutions subcommittee.
Though officials from the Treasury Department, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Office of Thrift Supervision, and other agencies outlined options, they did not endorse any.
That irked Rep. Jim Leach, chairman of the full committee, who sat in for part of the session.
"I expected this hearing to bring certain definitive proposals to the table, so it's hard not to be disappointed," the Iowa Republican said.
Still, it appeared that banks are likely to get stuck with some portion of the tab.
"The banking industry does have an interest in helping to solve this problem," said Rep. John LaFalce, D-N.Y., noting that 38% of the deposits insured by the Savings Association Insurance Fund are owned by banks. "A problem from one financial services sector is a problem for all industry participants."
That's what thrifts have been saying for months. Adding heft to their arguments, FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer testified that the fund has a "compelling problem" that will only get worse.
Urging a comprehensive solution, Ms. Helfer rejected piecemeal remedies. While Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse D'Amato, R-N.Y., has said he agrees, Rep. Leach has, so far, been less interested in enacting major deposit insurance legislation.
SAIF's problems stem from the fact that by yearend thrifts will be paying for deposit insurance at a rate six times higher than banks pay. That's because the thrift fund is $6.7 billion away from its reserve target of 1.25%. (The Bank Insurance Fund will cross that threshold this summer, which will trigger a rate reduction expected to save the banking industry $4.5 billion a year.)
This looming disparity is forcing thrifts to look for ways to transfer deposits from SAIF to the bank fund.
Half a dozen thrifts with a combined $80 billion of assets have announced plans to charter banks to escape the high thrift rates.
As deposits run out of the thrift fund, its income shrinks. Ms. Helfer is worried that its revenue will not be able to cover interest payments on Financing Corp. bonds, the paper floated in 1987 to begin the first thrift fund rescue.
Ms. Helfer also noted that SAIF inherits responsibility for all failed thrifts from the Resolution Trust Corp. on July 1.
Thus the thrift fund is undercapitalized and faces potentially large costs, she said.
Ms. Helfer testified that any solution must reduce the premium disparity between banks and thrifts, recapitalize SAIF quickly, and supply funds to cover failure losses after July 1.
While she did not discuss solutions, her 118-page written statement explains several fixes that meet her three criteria.
First, Ms. Helfer proposes merging the bank and thrift insurance funds and forcing banks to share the $780 million yearly Fico tab.
Under her second option, money the RTC has not needed would be used to recapitalize the thrift fund. Then, banks and thrifts would share the Fico payments.
Finally, Ms. Helfer proposes a special assessments on thrift deposits to rebuild SAIF, coupled with banks sharing the Fico obligation or RTC funds covering the bond payments.