Though the Clinton administration and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. see the state of the Savings Association Insurance Fund as increasingly dire, it's becoming less likely that there will be a new savings fund rescue attempt in Congress.
Speaking at a Women in Housing and Finance conference here Thursday, senior officials at the Treasury Department and FDIC warned of a shrinking thrift fund and imminent default on Financing Corp., or Fico, bonds as thrifts flee deposit insurance premiums 23 basis points higher than those paid by Bank Insurance Fund members.
But two key congressional aides at the same meeting said legislation to fix the thrift fund's problems has no chance of passing unless it's part of a larger budget bill.
"It's hard to see this breaking free as stand-alone legislation regardless of how imminent Fico default is," said Chris Homan, legislative director for Rep. Edward R. Royce, R-Calif., a leading backer of bailout legislation. "We're not going to see that this year."
"A lot of forces that were disorganized and not ready to fight SAIF have gotten more motivated," agreed Senate Banking Committee counsel Joe Jiampietro. "Obviously the banks have gotten organized on this with regards to the Fico contribution and asked, 'Why us?'"
The House and Senate last year agreed to charge thrifts about $6 billion to capitalize the thrift fund and make banks pay the lion's share of $780 million in annual interest payments on Fico bonds now borne only by thrifts. But the legislation was part of the budget reconciliation package on which Congress and President Clinton have been unable to agree.
The $6 billion assessment on thrifts was counted as government revenue for budget-balancing purposes, which made the insurance fund rescue far more attractive than it would be on its own. "It really took the budget process to move BIF-SAIF along," Mr. Homan said.
So if it's not tacked to a spending bill, the bailout will lose much of its support, Mr. Homan and Mr. Jiampietro said. And if such a deal can't be worked out soon, they added, the thrift fund fix may be dead for the year.
After March 31, the SAIF legislation would have to be rewritten to change a number of effective dates, said the FDIC official, Leslie Woolley. And the congressional staffers said changing the dates - which would mean big shifts in who pays for the fund rescue - might prove too controversial to handle this year.
Assistant Treasury Secretary Richard S. Carnell said, however, that the administration is reluctant to support plans to tack the thrift fund fix to a short-term spending bill or debt-ceiling extension. "We would like to see SAIF recapitalization passed quickly, but whether that approach is something we would accept is another question," he said.
If stand-alone legislation is pursued, he added, Congress should consider only the issues now in the budget bill. Related plans to merge the bank and thrift charters should be tackled later.
"I would have doubts about including the charter issues at this stage. The charter issues remain a source of different perspectives on the Hill," Mr. Carnell said.
Ms. Woolley, whose title is deputy to the chairman for policy, rejected suggestions that the FDIC could stave off the Fico default - which she predicted would happen in 1997 if a thrift fund rescue isn't enacted - by requiring banks that have bought thrifts or thrift branches to share in the payments.
"We feel there is nothing we can do from a stopgap legislative strategy or an administrative strategy that could solve the problem," she said.