It may be that Congress and the administration have learned a bitter lesson from the savings and loan crisis and are getting their act together to avoid a similar costly debacle in the banking industry.
Taxpayers are paying a bill that may reach $500 billion for the cost of closing down insolvent thrifts and paying off depositors. From all indications, that cost could have been a fraction of what it is if the government had acted sooner.Now there is troubling news from the banking industry where near record numbers of bank failures are happening, caused at least in part by the depressed real estate market.
A report last week predicted 600 to 700 bank failures will occur by 1993. If that happens, the insurance fund that covers deposits at federally chartered banks could be reduced to a mere $4 billion, its lowest point ever.
If nothing is done to strengthen the insurance fund and the number of bank failures increases beyond current projections, U.S. taxpayers will once again have to pick up the bill to pay off depositors.
Fortunately, Congress and the administration recognize the problem and are proposing remedies. The danger lies in delay.
Proposals have surfaced in both the House and Senate to strengthen the insurance fund and to overhaul the rules governing bank operations to reduce their risk.
Most proposals call for banks to pay higher premiums for coverage by the bank insurance fund. Other plans would limit the protection currently provided to depositors, who now have $100,000 insurance on every account. That amount could be reduced or limited to one account per person.
Rep. Henry Gonzalez, D-Texas, chairman of the House Banking Committee, recently outlined a broad package of reforms, saying, "We must now confront what no one wanted to admit four or five years ago: The deposit insurance system is in urgent need of repair."
"Not only did the savings and loan insurance fund fail, today the bank insurance fund is facing a fifth consecutive year of multibillion-dollar losses," he said in a speech to the House.
With Congress expected to adjourn in mid-October, is is unlikely that comprehensive banking reform can be achieved this year. Gonzalez, for one, appeared satisfied to just get the discussion started this year with the hope that the next Congress will pass whatever legislation is needed.
Others, however, are pushing for quick action to raise bank premiums and build up the insurance fund.
The call for action is not unanimous, however. Some in the banking industry feel the savings and loan crisis is causing Congress to overreact to the current banking problems.
And the bankers don't like the idea of paying higher premiums for insurance coverage.
But the obvious problems now confronting the banking industry and the potential for another costly bailout make it likely that Congress will do what is needed. If they fail to do so, the taxpayers would be justified in launching an open revolt and storming Washington.