Depositors pulled up to $12 billion out of the nation's troubled savings and loans in January and February, continuing the massive financial hemorrhage that is weakening the industry, federal regulators report.
The trend clearly signals continued public anxiety about entrusting money to thrifts, despite frequent assurances from President Bush and congressional leaders that all deposits up to $100,000 are safe in any federally insured thrift.Equally significant, the deposit-withdrawal trend also threatens to make taxpayers pay billions of dollars more than the Bush administration estimates to restore the thrift industry to financial stability.
The administration plan assumes the industry's deposit base will grow by 7 percent annually over the next 10 years - and that this growth will generate extra billions in fees paid by the industry for federal-deposit insurance. Those fees are supposed to help pay for Bush's plan.
Net withdrawals from thrifts totaled $7 billion in January and up to $5 billion more in February, the Federal Home Loan Bank Board reported. The February figures are tentative, based on $3.7 billion in withdrawals through the first 20 days of the month.
That continues a trend of net withdrawals, which totaled $8.1 billion in December and $7.1 billion in November.
"We're having a very mild but clear silent run going on," said Robert Litan, a Brookings Institution economist who specializes in analysis of financial institutions. Litan said he assumed the run would "peter out" once publicity about the industry's problems fades and Congress approves a bailout plan.
Still, he said, the new data "certainly calls into question the continued growth assumptions on deposits" in the administration's plan.
"It could easily mean that the total deposit-insurance receipts could be overstated by $5 billion" over 10 years, Litan said. The public will pick up that tab if industry fees don't provide it, he added.
"The problem with these numbers is you don't know where the runs are taking place," Litan said. If depositors are abandoning the sickest thrifts, "that's nothing we should cry about" because it means taxpayers will be responsible for guaranteeing lower deposit totals.
"But if (the withdrawals) are coming out of healthy ones because of pervasive unease, then that's something to worry about," Litan said.
Even if Bush's economic assumptions turn out to be correct, his plan will cost the public $76.7 billion over the next 10 years - $36 billion more than the administration has said - according to the Senate Budget Committee analysis cited by its chairman Jim Sasser, D-Tenn.
However, Treasury Secretary Nicholas Brady challenged Sasser's figures, insisting the plan would cost taxpayers only $39.9 billion over the next 10 years. Industry fees will pick up the rest of the $157 billion tab over 10 years, the administration says.
Evidence that deposit withdrawals continue highlighted a day of testimony before the Senate Banking Committee by Federal Home Loan Bank Board members, including a challenge by board chairman M. Denny Wall to a key element of the Bush plan.
Wall insisted that the bank board should retain independent authority to regulate the thrift industry. Bush would make the board subordinate to the Treasury Department, and in some ways also to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., which regulates commercial banks.
Wall also defended "brokered deposits," insisting there was nothing wrong with permitting thrifts to continue raising funds that way.
"Brokered deposits" enable thrifts to build their deposit bases quickly by paying commissions to brokers, often located out of state, for channeling them deposits packaged in $100,000 units. The thrifts lure the deposits with above-market interest rates.
Many analysts blame reliance on those volatile, costly funds as a major factor contributing to the thrift industry's woes.
But Wall and his colleagues stressed that since 1986, the bank board had established tighter regulatory controls over how thrifts invest funds, thus removing the risk of over-reliance on brokered deposits.