The beleaguered thrift insurance fund grew 50%, to $3.9 billion, in the 12 months ended June 30, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has announced.

Bankers said this week's data prove the Savings Association Insurance Fund is healthy and on track to reach its legally required reserve target of 1.25% of insured deposits.

"SAIF continues to march on its merry way to recapitalization," said James A. Chessen, chief economist for the American Bankers Association.

Legislative efforts to shore up the thrift fund have been prompted by warnings from the FDIC and other regulators that the fund is in danger of defaulting on interest due on Financing Corp. bonds.

In a press release Tuesday, the FDIC described the thrift fund's growth as "sluggish" and said it "continues to be seriously undercapitalized."

But Mr. Chessen disagreed. "I don't know how adding $1 billion every year constitutes sluggish growth," he said.

"It's not sluggish growth at all," said Bert Ely, an Alexandria, Va.- based industry consultant.

But regulators said they continue to be concerned the fund will become depleted as thrifts shift deposits to the Bank Insurance Fund in order to pay lower insurance premiums. The funds aren't likely to show the impact of deposit migration until next year, said Roger Watson, FDIC's research director.

Mr. Watson said the thrift fund's growth was tepid compared to how rapidly banks rebuilt their insurance fund. At its current pace, he said, the thrift fund would not be adequately capitalized until 2001 or 2002.

"It's growing much more slowly than we would like to see," he said.

Brian Smith, director of policy and research for America's Community Bankers, made the same point. "The bank fund came roaring back," he said, but the thrift fund, saddled with the Fico interest payments, is just inching its way up.

The FDIC reported that the bank fund grew by 1.4%, or $375 million, to $25.8 billion during the first half of 1996. The small growth rate reflected the fact that banks paid only $37 million in premiums.

The data recalled another sore point for bankers. Because the fund has more than the $1.25 it is required to hold in reserve for every $100 of domestic deposits, banks are owed more than $1 billion in rebates, Mr. Chessen argued.

"That's an incredible amount of money to be sitting in Washington rather than put to work by banks in their communities," he said.

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