The most amazing thing about the savings and loan crisis, says Lazard Freres partner Felix Rohatyn, "is that there aren't already 6,000 guys in jail." But fraud and high living, while complicating the problem (and making some of the juicier headlines), account for only a small share of the huge losses for which the American public still will be paying 30 years or more from now.

Most of the red ink, according to former Federal Reserve Board governor Sherman J. Maisel, can be traced to deregulation at both federal and state levels between 1980 and 1983 that triggered mismanagement and excessive risk-taking. Moreover, once deregulation was in effect, Uncle Sam was penny-wise with supervision payrolls, but stood by with $100,000 in insurance for every deposit.

The general problem of the S&Ls was exacerbated by a special situation in Texas and in the Southwest, where S&Ls and commercial banks bet their institutions on the mistaken hope that oil prices could be pushed sky-high.

There is nothing quite like a big bank failure to concentrate the mind. Thus, the July 6, 1982, bankruptcy of the Penn Square National Bank of Oklahoma, then the fourth-biggest bank bust in American history, synthesized all of the elements of avarice and abuse that had driven the financial institutions to disaster's edge.

Once the damage was done and became apparent, the federal government (that includes the regulators, Congress and the White House) covered it up with accounting gimmickry and kept postponing the day when the bills would have to be paid.

Washington chose to keep insolvent institutions alive, instead of biting the bullet and taking the losses.

"In effect," Maisel told a congressional committee, "the government assumed all the risks for hundreds of insolvent institutions. It was like staking poker players {to} piles of chips while allowing them to keep any winnings, even as the government agreed to pay all the losses... .

"All the new credit, together with larger tax benefits, greatly inflated land and building prices. When inflation subsided and interest rates rose, the inflated values were squeezed out."

In 1984, according to financial institutions consultant Bert Ely, all insolvent S&Ls could have been closed at a total price of $42 billion. If tackled a couple of years earlier, before Texas S&Ls began to go belly up, the price might have been as low as $20 billion to $25 billion, Ely says.

But Ronald Reagan didn't want to add to already-staggering budget deficits, and Congress found no trouble in going along. So failed and failing institutions were kept open -- with the government still insuring every account up to $100,000, the ceiling set in 1980.

Last week, realistic figures were finally supplied to Congress by Treasury Secretary Nicholas F. Brady. They confirmed General Accounting Office estimates that the bailout cost could run over $250 billion in the next decade, and more than $500 billion over 30 years. Had Bush and Brady come clean even 15 months ago, the price would have been considerably less.

The blame for the S&L fiasco has been well-distributed among those who deserve it -- a Republican White House; a Democratic-controlled Congress; assorted regulators; the Federal Reserve -- for excessive money-supply growth in the 1970s; inefficient and-or crooked operators; and even greedy depositors looking for that extra eighteenth of a point of interest.

But too little attention has been focused on the contributory role of "money brokers" who packaged"In effect, the government assumed all the risks for hundreds of insolvent institutions." -- Sherman J. Maisel, former Fed governor$100,000 blocks of depositors' money that, for a fee, they directed to a number of S&Ls.

Thus, as the New York Times has documented, in the first six months after Arizona land speculator Charles H. Keating Jr. took over the now-failed Lincoln Savings and Loan Association of Irvine, Calif., in 1984, Merrill Lynch put almost $200 million into Lincoln.

Later, Dean Witter became the main source, providing $671 million. Dean Witter earned a fee of 2.86 percent -- in addition to interest.

To cover the cost of this high-priced influx of insured deposits, Lincoln made risky investments in real estate and junk bonds that helped bring the institution to a state of collapse.

Lincoln was not alone, but it was simply the most visible and, to date, the most costly single symbol (the taxpayer expense is expected to be $2.5 billion) of the excessive growth pattern of the S&Ls in the mid-1980s. Keating's pressure on five senators to get slow-to- wise-up regulators off his back was a revelation to the public of unsavory political influence.

A main lesson is that deregulation turned the S&Ls loose to make investments in areas where they had little or no expertise. Deregulation, at a minimum, demanded more and better supervision, but a penny-pinching Reagan administration provided less.

A distinguished banker and former Treasury official recalls a face-to-face, 90-minute session with former Office of Management and Budget director David Stockman, in which he warned Stockman about the possible consequences. "He didn't even want to hear about it," he said.