Depositors with accounts at privately insured savings institutions in Maryland and other states have a legitimate concern that ought to be addressed by their respective legislators.
Lawmakers in those states assumed responsibility for approving state-chartered thrifts and establishing private insurance deposit funds for them. But the evolution of the financial services industry over the last decade demands prompt regulatory changes at the state level, as the crisis in the Ohio thrift industry shows.
Account holders at state-chartered institutions in Maryland, Massachusetts, North Carolina and Pennsylvania are being told to "trust us, it can't happen here." That's not quite good enough, even though the same conditions that led to the Ohio crisis may not be present in other states. The Ohio situation is sobering enough, nonetheless, to spark legislative changes that promise stronger guarantees against a similar crisis.
Regulators and other state officials in Ohio were just as confident a month ago that state-chartered thrifts there were in "good shape" -- the catch phrase being used to reassure depositors in other states with privately insured S&Ls. Most state-chartered S&Ls in Ohio probably were in good shape. But that was before Home State Savings Bank of Cincinnati was forced to close after heavy losses from dealings with a Florida government securities firm precipitated a run on the bank.
The crisis in Ohio may be just an isolated situation, as many have suggested. On the other hand, statements intended to reassure depositors that the same thing couldn't happen in their states seem meaningless so long as they aren't supported by tougher regulatory measures and deposit insurance reform.
It's obvious now that Ohio lacked an effective early-warning system that might have detected Home State's dealings.
The rationale for establishing the private insurance funds has been rendered all but obsolete in a new competitive environment under deregulation. States with private insurance funds have been slow in recognizing the impact of those forces. Maryland, for example, has taken a much needed first step in tightening the regulatory machinery, but it hasn't gone far enough.
The Ohio debacle is a costly reminder that financial institutions and systems are only as strong as the confidence of investors and borrowers. Assurances from Maryland officials that the private insurance fund and state-chartered S&Ls are in good shape have averted panic. Confidence is another matter, however, as several queries from concerned depositors indicate.
"How safe is our money . . . ?" a depositor asked in a two-page letter to The Washington Post enumerating his concerns about a privately insured Maryland S&L.
"We have some $6,000 deposited with this institution, about equally divided between a savings account . . . which has been averaging around 9.5 percent to 10 percent interest, and an IRA, which is cited as bearing a 13.1 percent interest rate.
"These values strike me and my wife as almost abnormally high, and make us wonder about the kinds of risks this institution may be engaging in to permit them to pay that kind of interest. Given the repeated instances of savings institutions that are going bankrupt in various parts of the country . . . perhaps you can appreciate our concern about the safety of our money and the wisdom of keeping it where it is."
The depositor noted in an astute observation that the S&L in question appears to be a relatively new institution "that has experienced rather rapid growth due to an aggressive campaign to attract depositors." The institution's net worth has soared 74 percent above the level of a year ago and its deposits have increased by more than $100 million, he added.
"I suppose normally, assuming that the bank is under sound management, such a growth rate and the high interest rates it advertised would only be considered positive signs," the depositor acknowledged.
He added that the growth rates and high yields also might support assumptions, generally held until recently, that institutions "not hampered by federal restrictions were in a stronger position and could afford to pay higher rates of interest as a result."
But that assessment was made in the "pre-deregulation era," at a time when most of the nation's S&Ls were still experiencing the negative effects of high interest rates, the depositor accurately noted. Hence, the "somewhat rosy view of the state-backed institutions versus the federal ones might no longer be applicable," he speculated.
Perhaps Ohio's experience will spur Maryland legislators to restore the confidence of that depositor and others by passing even tougher thrift industry regulations. The Maryland Savings Share Insurance Corp., the privately funded deposit program, seems as good a place to start as any. Requiring substantially higher insurance premiums for high-flyers might be one way of discouraging risky investment activities by S&L management, for example.