The Ohio financial crisis, which has left nearly all 70 state-chartered savings and loan associations closed since last Friday -- had its roots in weak regulation, but exploded because Ohio officials made major missteps, several banking and government officials said.
Other observers said, however, they don't know how Ohio officials could have acted differently once a run began on Home State Savings Bank, the biggest institution insured by the private Ohio Deposit Guarantee Fund.
But nearly all federal and private officials familiar with the crisis -- none of whom agreed to be identified -- said Ohio could have been spared had its regulation of state-chartered, privately insured savings and loans been stronger.
The crisis began when a Florida government securities dealer was forced into bankruptcy March 4. Home State had invested about $700 million with ESM Government Securities Inc. and its losses from the dealer's failure amounted to $150 million, more than the insurance fund's reserves.
It was revealed last week that Ohio regulators knew three years ago that Home State had excessive and risky dealings with ESM but did little about it. They had hoped to unwind the relationship in May, when Home State's deals with ESM were to expire, but ESM expired two months too early.
Officials kept Home State open for a week, then closed it March 9. By the middle of last week, a few of the other banks insured by the fund began to experience heavy withdrawals as well, apparently because depositors realized losses at Home State had depleted the fund that supposedly backed their deposits.
Ohio Gov. Richard F. Celeste feared that the state-chartered institutions would face a classic run on deposits and closed them to prevent it.
A number of executives said that Celeste and his advisers were too slow to recognize the ramifications of the losses at Home State. When state officials closed Home State, they had no plan to solve its problems and no plan to deal with ripples that might affect other savings and loans.
Finally, they said, the state turned a serious problem into a systemwide crisis by shutting all 70 of these savings and loan associations when only a handful were facing serious withdrawals. Those withdrawals amounted to less than $100 million at institutions that had total deposits of more than $4 billion.
"If you want to contain panic, not create it, you've got to think out your actions in advance," said one government official. He pointed out that the day Celeste closed the institutions, one stayed open for several hours and experienced no panics. It closed voluntarily only after Ohio officials called its management and threatened to send state police.
The classic way to deal with a depositor panic is to throw money at it. Once depositors become convinced that they can withdraw their funds whenever they want to, their desire to withdraw those funds immediately declines. The Federal Reserve Bank of Cleveland was prepared to supply those funds.
Critics of Ohio authorities said that when Celeste closed all the banks, there was not any evidence of a run. They concede that one might have developed, but said that the panic seemed so spotty that it probably would have been contained without depriving about a half million depositors of access to their funds for a period that in some cases could be weeks.
Other government and private officials, however, are less critical of Ohio's actions once the Home State run began. "What else could they do," asked one top government official. "They had to close Home State. I've heard the criticisms that the Ohio repsonse to Home State created the crisis , but when an institution faces a run, authorities have no choice but to close it."
But nearly all experts are unanimous that Ohio authorities in effect created their problem by permitting Home State to get so deeply involved with ESM Government Securities Inc., the Florida dealer that failed early this month.
"What's so ridiculous about this whole thing," said one top congressional aide, is that regulators in Ohio knew more than two years ago that Home State was engaging in a wide variety of risky practices with ESM, but lacked either the ability or the authority to stop it.
Federal examinations of all the closed institutions conducted after Celeste closed the savings and loans revealed that as many as a quarter of them are insolvent. The congressional aide said such a high level of open but insolvent institutions is a further indictment of Ohio regulation, although he conceded that many federally insured institutions are open today because of accounting gimmicks.
That many of the Ohio savings and loans were riddled with losses should come as no surprise, one government official said. A large number opted for state insurance because they were small and did not want to deal with federal red tape. But a number preferred the state insurance system because it permitted them to make riskier investments than federal regulators tolerate or because state regulation is laxer than federal regulation -- or both.