169 in 1990 and another 180 expected this year - has left the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. with only $4 billion to cover $2 trillion worth of deposits. The fund could be out of money by 1992.
Clearly, the FDIC needs to be bolstered, but the fund - financed by bank fees - should not become simply another drain on the U.S. taxpayer. While some temporary help may be necessary, the whole banking system must be strengthened.In his State of the Union Address, President Bush acknowledged the problem by remarking on a package of reforms needed to bring the banking system "into the 21st century," but he did not provide details.
Details would need approval from Congress and are still being worked on. One aspect of the plan would use tax funds - in addition to the usual fees provided by the banking industry - to cover all depositors where a bailout was deemed vital to the national economy.
In such situations, the FDIC would continue to pay up to $100,000 per account, while tax money would be used to protect greater amounts. In other words, the taxpayer would be asked to protect big depositors who have more money in the bank than is covered by the FDIC.
Since when should the taxpayer be responsible for bailing out the wealthy? The whole idea of deposit insurance was to protect the ordinary depositor's savings. The amount, originally set at $10,000, has inflated over the years to the present $100,000 - a figure some think is far too high.
An argument can be made for using tax money to meet FDIC obligations if the federal fund did not have enough cash to cover insured accounts. But why use taxes to protect accounts beyond the FDIC limit of $100,000?
Federal officials say the taxpayer-backed coverage would apply only in cases where a major bank failure could trigger economic problems in the entire industry.
They say involving tax money would ensure that any bailout decisions would be made "at the highest levels of government." In the wake of the S&L disaster, that is hardly reassuring.
Some things need to be done. Banks need to put more of their money into insurance fees, although there are limits to that approach. It would hardly make sense to push weak banks over the edge by raising insurance fees too high.
Insurance should be limited to $100,000 per person instead of $100,000 per account. In fact, the FDIC insurance ought to be removed from big investments like pension funds and brokered deposits.
The FDIC also needs an immediate $5 billion federal loan to bolster its funds, but that should be a loan to be repaid from bank fees, rather than an outright grant.
Banks need to be given more freedom to compete in some non-bank areas, such as the selling of securities.
And the system needs tougher supervision, including steps to pull weak banks away from the brink of bankruptcy much earlier. Too little, too late has been one of the major problems with the S&L bailout.
Reform must be real reform, not merely loading more of the fiscal responsibility onto the U.S. taxpayer.