The Bush administration's two top bank regulators said yesterday that the government should never give up the option of bailing out all depositors in big banks that fail, a practice other administration officials have vowed to curtail.
Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman L. William Seidman and Comptroller of the Currency Robert L. Clarke both told Congress that protecting accounts that exceed the $100,000 limit on federal deposit insurance will sometimes be necessary to keep the failure of a large bank from sending shock waves through the economy.
Their statements put the two regulators at odds with the Treasury Department, which is about to unveil a banking reform package that is expected to call for limiting deposit insurance coverage and ending the practice of guaranteeing all deposits in big banks that go broke.
Seidman warned that if Congress adopts that plan, "the United States will be the only country in the world" that does not stand behind its major banks when they get in trouble.
Key elements of the administration plan were also greeted with skepticism yesterday by congressional banking committee leaders who have come back to Washington to find the banking industry facing its most severe crisis in decades.
Seidman and Clarke were called before both the House and Senate banking committees to explain their handling of the failure of the Bank of New England -- the latest big bank in which the government has bailed out depositors with accounts that exceed the usual $100,000 limit.
The regulators took over Bank of New England Corp.'s three banks Sunday night because of massive losses on real estate loans. Rather than shut down the Bank of New England's 300 branches and pay off insured depositors, the FDIC kept them open under government control. As a result, all deposits were protected, including about $2 billion in accounts of more than $100,000.
Nearly half those uninsured accounts were deposits of other banks, which themselves might have failed if they had lost their money, Seidman testified.
None of the congressional banking committee members openly disagreed with the FDIC decision, but virtually all the senators and representatives complained that it was unfair because all depositors were not covered in the recent failures of Freedom National Bank in Harlem and Capitol Bank in Boston.
The administration's plan is to force depositors with accounts of more than $100,000 to suffer some loss in all bank failures. They would not lose all their money, but they might lose 10 percent or more, a threat that Treasury officials would make sophisticated depositors more careful about where they put their accounts. The Treasury plan also will recommend a series of regulatory changes designed to prevent bank failures from happening. And the plan will call for imposing a limit of three insured $100,000 accounts per person; at present, people can get virtually unlimited deposit insurance coverage by splitting their money into multiple accounts at different banks.
Even if those measures are adopted and succeed in reducing bank failures, Clarke and Seidman testified, there will still be times when the FDIC will need to make an exception to protect the banking system.
"It is important that you not deprive the insurance fund of the ability to make business judgments" about the best way to handle bank failures, Clarke said.
Seidman suggested that any exceptions to the limit on deposit insurance coverage might be made not by the bank regulators but at a higher level -- perhaps by the Treasury secretary, the president or the Federal Reserve Board.
The acknowledgment that uninsured depositors in big banks would always have to be bailed out produced skepticism from congressional banking leaders adamant about ending the discrepancy between the treatment of big and little banks.
"You're right back where you started," observed Sen. Paul S. Sarbanes (D-Md.).
Members of both committees suggested that if the practice of bailing out big depositors in big banks cannot be ended, the government ought to bail out big depositors in all banks. Sarbanes was one of a dozen members of Congress who chastised the regulators for their handling of the failure of Freedom National Bank, one of the nation's biggest black-owned banks. He said several charitable groups were the big losers in Freedom National, including the United Negro College Fund. The fund had set up separate accounts for 50 different colleges, but regulators treated all 50 accounts as one insured deposit, resulting in a major loss to the fund.
Seidman said the FDIC is now reconsidering the way the 50 accounts were handled and may decide to grant full coverage.