Launching an effort by congressional Democrats to get ahead of the Bush administration on the issue of deposit insurance reform, House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez (D-Tex.) yesterday issued a plan that would make banks pay much more for their deposit insurance and would restrict the amount of insurance that any one depositor could have.
Gonzalez urged Congress to consider reducing the amount of savings the government now insures from the current limit of $100,000 per depositor at each bank. He also proposed to limit the number of insured accounts that people can have and to close a loophole that now allows big pension and investment funds to qualify for deposit insurance.
Gonzalez said banks and savings and loans that engage in risky investments should pay more for deposit insurance than those that stick to low-risk lending. And he said all banks should be required to pay deposit insurance premiums on their foreign accounts, which are often protected by the U.S. government even though they are not officially covered by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Because last year's S&L cleanup bill gave the FDIC responsibility for protecting depositors in both banks and thrifts, all the proposals would apply to accounts in any federally insured financial institution.
Delivery of the detailed deposit insurance reform package on the first day following Congress's summer vacation signaled the determination of Gonzalez and other influential Democratic lawmakers to take the lead on what they see as an increasingly potent political issue.
Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle Jr. (D-Mich.), who is expected to issue his own deposit insurance proposal next week, immediately praised Gonzalez "for his thoughtful proposal" and said he will "look forward to working with Chairman Gonzalez to craft solutions that ensure banks' problems never again become taxpayers' problems."
Saying the S&L debacle -- now projected to cost taxpayers as much as $500 billion over 10 years -- was caused by flaws in deposit insurance and federal oversight, the two Democratic banking committee chiefs have scheduled a series of hearings on the topic before the November elections.The Bush administration is holding off taking any position on the issue until the Treasury Department completes a deposit insurance study that was ordered by Congress in the S&L cleanup law passed a year ago. The Treasury study is not due until early next year but could be completed as early as next month.
White House officials have scrupulously avoided the issue since a major flap early in the Bush administration when they were ridiculed for floating the idea that depositors should pay a fee for insurance on their accounts. FDIC Chairman L. William Seidman called that "the reverse toaster" plan, saying that instead of the bank giving customers a toaster or other gift for making a deposit, the savers would have to give something to the bank.
Often at odds with fellow Republicans in the White House, Seidman already has endorsed many of the broad principles suggested yesterday by Gonzalez.
Both Gonzalez and Seidman want to limit the ways banks can invest insured deposits by prohibiting them from buying junk bonds, speculating in real estate or getting into other risky businesses.
Gonzalez and Seidman also agree that financial institutions that get involved in high-risk ventures should pay more for deposit insurance than those that put depositors' money into government bonds, home mortgages or other less-risky ventures. That idea, known in banking jargon as risk-based premiums, has also been endorsed by Federal Reserve Board Chairman Alan Greenspan.
The general notion that there should be some limit on how many insured $100,000 accounts each person can have is also backed by both Gonzalez and Seidman, although neither has specified how it would be done. Now, savers can have insured accounts in more than one bank and can set up insured accounts in the names of spouses, children and trusts to increase coverage to as much as $1 million per person.
Gonzalez yesterday advocated several other important changes in insurance and bank regulation, including the creation of a single consolidated regulatory agency that would take over work now handled by the FDIC as the overseer of state-chartered, federally insured banks; the Office of Thrift Supervision, which now regulates S&Ls; the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates national banks; and the Federal Reserve Board, which oversees bank holding companies.