WASHINGTON — Independent presidential candidate Ralph Nader called Wednesday for hearings to address the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s capacity to handle large failures, raising concerns that its $53 billion insurance fund is insufficient.
In a letter to congressional leaders, the consumer advocate said the July 11 failure of Pasadena, Calif.-based IndyMac Bancorp, which the FDIC estimates will cost $4 billion to $8 billion, proves the fund's vulnerability.
The Deposit Insurance Fund's size "may not be adequate, given the cost of IndyMac and given the approximately $4 trillion in deposits the FDIC insures," Mr. Nader wrote in the letter to Senate Banking Committee Chairman Chris Dodd, D-Conn., and House Financial Services Committee Chairman Barney Frank, D-Mass.
Mr. Nader, who has run as a third-party candidate several times, said in an interview that greater scrutiny of the FDIC is vital because the agency will ultimately get the tab if failures escalate. Regulators have acknowledged they expect more failures this year.
"There's been too little attention to FDIC in reports in the last few months," Mr. Nader said. "The focus has been on [Treasury Secretary Henry] Paulson and [Federal Reserve Board Chairman Ben] Bernanke. … It hasn't been on FDIC, which is on the hook."
He warned that greater stress on the insurance fund could ultimately cost taxpayers. Criticizing the 10-year "holiday" from deposit insurance premiums for most of the industry instituted by Congress in 1996, he said banks should be footing the cost to ensure the fund's strength.
"Just intuitively, … $53 billion is not very much. One major bank would take care of that," he said. The FDIC "is the great confidence-sustainer. Just think about how many years that 'FDIC' has been on everything when people walk into their little bank on Main and Elm."
The letter laid out questions for lawmakers to pose to the agency, including projections of the quantity and cost of failures this year, and whether the agency is "resisting raising the current rates of assessments on FDIC-insured banks so that the cost of any significant bailouts will have to be shifted to the taxpayers?"
An FDIC spokesman declined to comment on Mr. Nader's claim that the fund is too small but noted the agency lacks authority to address some of his concerns.
"While many of these issues have been addressed by the FDIC board of directors, others would require legislative action," the spokesman said in a statement.