WASHINGTON -- Looking to shore up the diminishing fund that insures bank deposits, the FDIC may take the unprecedented step of requiring banks to prepay three years' worth of premiums: about $36 billion.
The insurance fund has been sapped by billions from a rash of bank failures that began in mid-2008. The board of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. likely will call for "prepaid" bank insurance premiums at its public meeting Tuesday to discuss the issue, three industry executives and a government official said. The banking industry prefers that option over a special emergency fee - which would be the second this year.
The executives and the official spoke on condition of anonymity Monday because the decision had yet to be made public.
It would be the first time the FDIC has required prepaid insurance fees. Under the plan, banks would have to pay in advance their insurance premiums for 2010-2012, bringing in about $12 billion for each of the three years, two of the executives said. That is the normal amount of insurance fees, though it could vary somewhat according to growth in total insured deposits - the basis for determining the fees.
Off the table, at least for now, are the options of tapping the agency's $500 billion credit line with the Treasury Department and the agency borrowing billions of dollars from healthy banks by issuing its own debt, the industry executives and the government official said.
A spokesman for the FDIC declined to comment Monday afternoon.
FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said earlier this month that she was "considering all options, including borrowing from Treasury," to replenish the insurance fund. Yet she is generally perceived as considering that the most unpalatable approach.
Borrowing from the Treasury could create the undesirable impression of another taxpayer-financed bailout, while borrowing from the banks might make the FDIC look as if it were beholden to the banking industry, experts say.
Ninety-five banks have failed so far this year as losses have mounted on commercial real estate and other soured loans amid the most severe financial climate in decades. The insurance fund fell 20 percent to $10.4 billion at the end of June, its lowest point since 1992, at the height of the savings-and-loan crisis. The fund has now slipped to 0.22 percent of insured deposits, below a congressionally mandated minimum of 1.15 percent.
Some analysts expect hundreds more banks to fail in the coming years and the FDIC forecasts the fund will need $70 billion through 2013 to deal with those losses. But the FDIC is fully backed by the government, which means depositors' money is guaranteed up to $250,000 per account.
Besides the prepayment plan, the agency could still later propose an emergency assessment, or a transfer of cash collected in fees from the FDIC's temporary rescue program that guarantees hundreds of billions of dollars of debt that banks issue to each other. The agency has collected about $9 billion in fees from banks issuing debt under the program, and $596.7 million of it already has gone into the deposit insurance fund.
The first emergency fee, which took effect June 30, brought in around $5.6 billion. Another one would allow the healthiest banks to keep more capital for investment, but could drive weaker banks toward failure, further depleting the insurance fund.
"I think they will continue to levy (emergency) assessments on an ad hoc basis," said Bert Ely, a banking industry consultant in Alexandria, Va.
Bair acknowledged earlier this month that the agency did not want to "stress the industry too much at this time, when they're still in the process of recovery." U.S. Comptroller of the Currency John Dugan, who with Bair is a member of the FDIC board, has said another emergency levy "could cause more stressful conditions."
"We're pleased that they're looking at alternatives to another special assessment," said Karen Thomas, executive vice president of government relations at the Independent Community Bankers of America.
In addition to the insurance fund, the FDIC has about $21 billion in cash available in reserve to cover losses at failed banks, down from $25 billion at the end of the first quarter. The independent agency likely wouldn't consider tapping its credit line at the Treasury unless that cash were depleted, FDIC officials have said.
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