WASHINGTON - The government is working on a plan to levy a large one- time charge on thrifts - possibly totalling $6 billion - to recapitalize the Savings Association Insurance Fund.

In return, banks would share the industry's $780 million yearly interest payment on bonds floated to finance a portion of the S&L cleanup.

The Treasury Department is trying to formulate this fix now before the thrift industry is hit with deposit insurance costs five times higher than banks'.

The thrift industry is encouraged by the possible compromise but says the contemplated charge to thrifts may be too high. The banking industry, meanwhile, is adamantly against the plan.

"There is no reason why bank money should go to relieve an obligation of our primary competitor," said Jim Chessen, chief economist at the American Bankers Association. "Our position is very firm."

In a speech to the Independent Bankers Association of America in Hawaii, Chairman Ricki Tigert Helfer of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. weighed in.

After noting that the thrift fund, known as the SAIF, is underfunded, Ms. Helfer said: "The answer to the problem is not to disadvantage the banking system."

The Treasury does not plan to force a solution. Rather the government is talking to all sides, trying to find common ground. No proposal is imminent, because there also appears to be little appetite for the issue on Capitol Hill.

But the administration is concerned about the long-term future of the thrift industry. The rate disparity may pare profits at thrifts, turning off investors. If that happens, thrift managers could be lured into riskier ventures in search of greater returns.

Currently, the thrift fund's assessment base is about $750 billion. The plan under consideration calls for a one-time charge of 80 cents for every $100 of domestic deposits, which would produce $6 billion. Adding that to the $2 billion already in the fund would bring it close to the target reserve level of 1.25%.

Once the fund has $1.25 for every $100 of insured deposits, the FDIC may lower thrift premium rates.

The Bank Insurance Fund is expected to reach the 1.25% threshold in June or July, and a premium cut to four cents is expected by yearend.

Making the banks help thrifts pay the Financing Corp., or Fico, bonds, would add back about 2.5 cents a year in bank premiums for the next 25 years, Mr. Chessen explained.

"The industry accepts the fact that if we get help on Fico, we're going to have to provide the re-funding of SAIF," said Lou Nevins, president of the California League of Savings Institutions. "But 80 cents in one bite - I think that would be a lot for many in the industry to swallow in one gulp."

Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America, said leftover funds from the Resolution Trust Corp. should be tapped.

"Why doesn't the banking industry, and especially the ABA, join the IBAA in effort to get that money transferred to SAIF?" Mr. Guenther said. "If we don't get the transfer, there's a much better chance they'll either go with the 80 cents for thrifts or 2.5 cents from banks" to help pay for the Fico bonds.

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