The government agency that safeguards bank deposits is in the hotel and restaurant business. It's the phantom landlord of several office towers, shopping centers, polo grounds, a sewage plant and a 78-acre thoroughbred horse farm.

What does the Federal Deposit Insurance Co. know about changing bedsheets, flipping hotcakes, treating sludge or saddling horses? Nothing.The FDIC inherited these properties after rescuing a spate of insolvent banks over the years, and it's now auctioning them off en masse to investors worldwide.

Banking experts say the agency could be involved in many more of these auctions in the not-so-distant future if President Bush's plan for solving the nation's savings and loan crisis proceeds as planned.

Bush proposes to restructure the thrift regulatory system by giving the FDIC the added responsibility of insuring S&Ls, currently the job of the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. The change would pass on to the FDIC the authority of handling repossessed thrift assets, including real estate.

The Federal Asset Disposition Association, a subsidiary of FSLIC, says it alone manages 2,400 FSLIC property assets in 33 states with an appraised value of $3.8 billion - most the result of bad loans made by hundreds of failed thrifts over the years, half of which were in the Southwest. Among the properties: a 497-acre safari park in Branson, Mo.

For now, though, the FDIC has its own white elephants to contend with.