Much has been made of the decision by federal officials last week to grant an exception to banking regulations to enable MNC Financial Inc. to stay afloat. Under the circumstances, the decision appears to be the right one. Better to make an exception in this case rather than stand by and allow MNC to topple into bankruptcy.
With assets of $27 billion, MNC is one of the country's largest regional banking concerns. The consequences of a failure of that magnitude would be far-reaching given the uncertain of the economy. That's essentially the rationale that was employed recently when the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. took over Bank of New England, a $23 billion regional bank holding company.
In the not-so-subtle parlance of banking regulators, Bank of New England was "too big to fail." If you accept that rationale, then so is the even-bigger MNC.
By permitting MNC to borrow money from its two banking subsidiaries, Maryland National Bank of Baltimore and American Security Bank of Washington, banking regulators helped MNC meet its obligation to pay holders of $271 million in long-term notes. Thus, MNC averted default and bankruptcy.
The decision to exercise some flexibility in MNC's case may have been a departure from the norm, but it at least proves that regulators can be more flexible than they have shown in some instances. It also demonstrates consistency in adherence to the "too big to fail" argument. Nonetheless, the flexibility shown in MNC's case tends to reinforce the image of inconsistency in regulators' handling of problem banks.
Flexibility took a holiday in the closing of Freedom National Bank, a black-owned institution in New York, which failed in November. The FDIC's actions following the failure of the Harlem bank is a study in inconsistency, inflexibility and inequity. Adhering to its promise to insure all bank deposits up to $100,000, the FDIC promptly paid the full amount to depositors whose accounts were at or below that level.
It refused to reimburse anything over $100,000, however, before finally agreeing to pay 50 cents on each dollar above the maximum insured amount.
FDIC Chairman William Seidman has been quoted as saying Freedom National didn't meet the test of the "too-big-to-fail doctrine" because there are several other banks in New York City.
Granted, Freedom National, with assets of only $120 million last year, was small change compared with the likes of Citibank, Chase Manhattan and the other banking giants in New York City. But what does that have to do with treating depositors equitably?
When Bank of New England was declared insolvent earlier this month and taken over by the government, the FDIC agreed to pay all depositors in full, including those with deposits of more than $100,000. FDIC officials estimated it would cost the insurance fund more than $2 billion to make Bank of New England depositors whole.
Incredibly, the agency contended it would be cheaper to cover uninsured depositors than not cover them. Really? Does that apply only to depositors such as other banks and government agencies, or does it also include fat cats who simply want to park their money for convenience or for attractive rates?
No matter. The way the FDIC figures it,it's cheaper to shell out $2 billion than to ante up the $14 million in accounts of more than $100,000 at Freedom National.
We can assume then that it's all right to put more than $100,000 in a big regional bank in Boston or Baltimore, or a money-center bank in New York or Chicago.
We can infer from the FDIC's decision on Bank of New England that if you have $200,000 in a big bank you're assured of getting all of it back if the bank fails.
Does that mean that if you have more than $100,000 in a small bank, you should hurry to the nearest branch and withdraw every penny over $100,000. Not necessarily, it seems.
When the National Bank of Washington failed last August, the FDIC estimated it would have to pay at least $500 million to bail out NBW. Regulators sold NBW to Riggs National Bank, assuring depositors that their money would be safe.
NBW was anything but a big bank. Its parent company, Washington Bancorp, had assets of less than $2 billion when it failed. Another inconsistency.
Whether it was intended or not, the FDIC's handling of the Freedom National situation is a blatant example of insensitivity. Further, it's the kind of bureaucratic head-in-the-sand posture that invites allegations of racism.
Freedom National obviously was a troubled bank. Whether or not it could have been saved is academic.
Its condition at the time of failure epitomized an assessment of black-owned banks by Black Enterprise Magazine. "Last year, black banks found themselves struggling to survive amid bad debt and regional recessions," the magazine reported.
Large depositors, most of them churches and other nonprofit organizations, were fully aware of that, just as they must have been aware of the deposit-insurance limit.
As Washington Post staff writer Jerry Knight reported, one large Freedom National depositor, Turner Construction Co., maintained an account of at least $1 million as a gesture of support for the struggling bank.
That is precisely why the government continues to encourage large corporations to maintain accounts at minority-owned banks -- to help make them more viable, to help maintain financial services in the communities served by those institutions.
The FDIC's handling of the Freedom National failure carries a stern reminder for depositors at small banks that the insurance limit will be strictly enforced.
It could, however, have a chilling effect on corporate support for minority-owned banks.
In the final analysis, the dual system that penalizes or rewards large depositors, depending on the size of their banks, effectively undermines the credibility of the FDIC.