WASHINGTON - Jonathan L. Fiechter is sounding the alarm.
After keeping a low profile for most of the last two years, the acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision is warning anyone who will listen that the savings industry's future is threatened by the looming gap between what banks and thrifts will pay for deposit insurance.
"I have spent more time dealing with the Congress in the last three weeks than the previous five years put together," Mr. Fiechter said recently. "Three a week" is his new mantra - he now meets with three members of Congress each week, a dozen a month, to tell them about the problems he sees.
He has called for public hearings on the impact of the rate disparity; the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., of which he is a director, is holding one such session today as a result.
And last week, he turned the quarterly press conference that the OTS holds to announce thrift earnings into a rare jawboning session, telling a roomful of reporters that the premium gap could spell the end of the industry.
That is a lot from the shy Mr. Fiechter, a gangly 6-foot-7 man known more as a team player than a team captain.
Because of his status as an acting director of the agency, Mr. Fiechter doesn't like to be seen as trying to speak for the Clinton administration - or overstepping his position.
His reluctance do so became clear early in the administration. Back then, three picture frames could be found in the OTS lobby.
The top one framed a photo of President Clinton; beneath and to the left was then-Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen.
The frame to the right of Mr. Bentsen's was empty.
As it became clear the administration would not nominate a permanent director for OTS anytime soon, Mr. Fiechter took all the frames down, rather than put his own picture in the empty spot.
But on the premium differential issue, Mr. Fiechter's status as an acting director has helped his credibility.
"He is trusted by Hill Republicans because he is not a political appointee," said Lou Nevins, president of the Western League of Savings Institutions. "He is trusted and admired by people in the administration because he is so competent."
The Clinton administration seems particularly pleased that Mr. Fiechter has spoken up.
"Jonathan has spoken out eloquently and persistently about the need for action" on the Savings Association Insurance Fund, said Rick Carnell, assistant secretary of the Treasury for financial institutions, "and we support what he is doing."
Given Mr. Fiechter's reputation as a team player, some have suggested his public warnings about SAIF are trial balloons for the Treasury Department. Though Mr. Fiechter said he has run some documents he has issued past the Treasury Department, he insisted the ideas are his own.
Others have quietly faulted Mr. Fiechter because he has only outlined the problem - and not suggested a solution - to the premium differential problem.
But most praise him for laying the groundwork for later action.
"Until you feel you may be developing some kind of consensus, there is not much point in leaping out in front and advocating," a set solution, said Charles R. Rinehart, president and chief executive officer of Irwindale, Calif.-based H.F. Ahmanson & Co.
Maneuvering the complex problem through Congress "is kind of like trying to herd cats," Mr. Rinehart said. If Mr. Fiechter staked out a position early, he would have risked losing credibility if the political winds shifted.
Mr. Fiechter is tackling a complex public policy problem that mixes dollars and cents with the history of the savings and loan crisis.
He has told Congress - and anyone else who will listen - that the industry's future is threatened by the potent combination of an undercapitalized insurance fund and the requirement that the fund make a high, fixed annual payment toward Financing Corp. bonds. The bonds helped pay for the liquidation of failed savings institutions in the late 1980s.
Lowering bank premiums will encourage thrifts to find ways to avoid paying the continued high SAIF premiums, Mr. Fiechter said in a recent interview. Several have already announced they will charter new commercial banks and slowly move business to the new, lower cost bank.
If forced to pay more than their competitors, thrifts may take more risks - just as they did in the early 1980s as a way to try to earn their way out of an interest rate mismatch problem.
As individual thrifts have trouble competing because of the more expensive deposit insurance, they will find Wall Street less likely to help them raise money just when they need it most. Investors will shy away because of the industry's uncertain future, Mr. Fiechter warns.
Part of the problem in winning the attention of Congress is that the S&L industry is so healthy. Just two tiny thrifts failed last year - the lowest death count in years.
"I can't wave a warning flag that the sky is about to fall in, because we are not in danger of an imminent crisis," Mr. Fiechter said. "I am trying to apply the old stitch-in-time-saves-nine approach to legislation."
Mr. Fiechter is diplomatic when he is asked how members of Congress have reacted to his concerns about the deposit insurance problem.
"I have been told that my bringing the problem to their attention is the right thing to do," he said. "I don't think anyone likes to be confronted with this kind of issue.
"They have said that it will be a very, very difficult issue to tackle, and that it clearly will take a number of different parties - including the administration - working together to come up with a solution where you have a certain sharing of the burden."
Trying to play a leadership role with Congress does not come easily to Mr. Fiechter.
"I have found this to be awkward, frankly" he said.
Perhaps it is Mr. Fiechter's past that drives his out-of-character activism - and his reluctance to get mixed up in politics.
He joined the Federal Home Loan Bank Board in 1987 as the managing director of the office of regulatory activities. M. Danny Wall was the chairman of the Bank Board then, and earned Congress' wrath for looking at the S&L industry through rose-colored glasses.
"If I learned any lesson, it was that one should err on providing more rather than less information to the Congress," Mr. Fiechter said. "Danny Wall would have benefited from having far more consultations with the Hill."
Mr. Fiechter is clearly trying to apply that lesson to his stewardship of the thrift industry.
"I don't think you should wait until there is a full-blown crisis before you start ringing the alarm bells," he said.