WASHINGTON -- In a move that could save thrifts as much as $204 million, Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen has decided that taxpayers will pay for any savings institution failure that occurs before July 1.

The Resolution Trust Corp. could have stopped accepting failed thrifts at the end of this month. Congress gave Mr. Bentsen, as chairman of the Thrift Depositor Protection Oversight Board, the discretion to set a shutoff date anytime between Jan. 1 and July 1, 1995.

The cost of any thrift failure after the cutoff date will be paid for by the fledgling the Savings Association Insurance Fund, which is years away from being fully capitalized.

"We considered the status of the industry, the status of SAIF, and the opinion and view of the OTS and RTC on the matter," said Dietra L. Ford, executive director of the oversight board.

Just one thrift has failed so far this year, and the industry is overwhelmingly healthy. But six thrifts with $1.7 billion of assets are now considered "likely" to fail, Ms. Ford said. If in a worstcase scenario they all failed before July 1, the RTC could face costs of up to $204 million, given the agency's average recovery rate of 88% of assets.

A Treasury Department spokesman refused to comment on the matter. But a senior Treasury official said taxpayers are no worse off because of Mr. Bentsen's decision.

As a practical matter, since regulators "wouldn't arbitraily be letting the failure occur right after the RTC intake period ends," the official said, any failing thrift would have been handed over to the RTC sooner if the deadline had not been extended.

The thrift industry and its regulators praised Mr. Bentsen's decision.

"The cost to the taxpayer of the underfunded and ultimately insolvent FSLIC [Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp.] was great enough so that I would not want to run the risk again of having this industry that I supervise relying on an insurance fund that is undercapitalized," said acting Office of Thrift Supervision Director Jonathan L. Fiechter.

"From the standpoint of our fund and what might happen to it, we wanted to have that shock absorber there as long as possible," said Randall H. McFarlane, director of government relations for the Savings and Community Bankers of America.

The RTC is to shut down entirely at the end of next year. Its remaining work will be transferred to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

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