Three of the country's top regulators say the thrift deposit insurance fund is in dire straits, but what do they know?

As the American Bankers Association sees it, Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Ricki Helfer, Treasury Under Secretary John D. Hawke Jr., and Office of Thrift Supervision Acting Director Jonathan Fiechter are three Cassandras casting unwarranted prophesies of doom.

The regulators last week wrote to congressional leaders urging them to pass a rescue plan that requires banks to assume the majority of payments on long-term bonds used to finance an earlier thrift industry bailout. Without the fix, the regulators argued, thrifts will move deposits out of the Savings Association Insurance Fund and the bonds could go into default.

ABA chief lobbyist Edward L. Yingling said the trade group will refute the regulators in letters to Capitol Hill this week.

Using numbers crunched by ABA chief economist James Chessen, the ABA will argue that the thrift fund is growing fast enough to be capitalized by 1999. With the fund at the required reserve level, thrift premiums would drop sharply, eliminating much of the disparity with insurance fees paid by banks.

Mr. Yingling said lawmakers need to be reminded that FDIC warnings about the thrift fund have been overly pessimistic. "We do think that those who have followed the issue know the FDIC predictions have proven not to be the case," he said.

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Two lawmakers who support the thrift fund fix want Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to weigh in again on the plan. On Feb. 14, Rep. Ed Royce, R-Calif., and Rep. John J. LaFalce, D-N.Y. asked the Fed chairman to update them on his views of the SAIF bailout.

One disgruntled bank lobbyist viewed their request cynically, saying they want one more big name to use as ammunition against the banks' argument. After all, Mr. Greenspan issued warnings about the thrift fund's condition this fall and there's little chance he'd back away now.

Rep. Royce in particular has a lot of friends in the thrift industry, which includes several large institutions from his home state. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, Rep. Royce received $8,637 in thrift industry campaign contributions during the first half of 1995, second only to the $21,813 given to Rep. Bill McCollum, R-Fla.

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Leading thrift trade groups will pow-wow in Washington to draft more battle plans for the thrift fund fight. America's Community Bankers will hold its annual government affairs conference March 11-13. Holding its own meetings in conjunction with the ACB conference will be the Western League of Savings Institutions, which represents thrifts in California, Arizona, and Nevada.

Besides rebuilding SAIF, both groups count merging the bank and thrift insurance funds as a legislative priority. Also topping ACB's list is a restructuring of the Federal Home Loan Bank System.

Conference speakers include Ms. Helfer, Mr. Hawke, Mr. Fiechter, House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Bill Archer, Senate Budget Committee Chairman Pete Domenici, Federal Housing Finance Board Chairman Bruce Morrison, Rep. Marge Roukema, Rep. Richard Baker.

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