Two years ago, a small group of shrewd investors put up $100 million and bought the then-troubled Bowery Savings Bank in New York City, after getting $275 million in cash and guarantees from the government's bank regulator, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

Now they are selling the Bowery to a California company for $200 million, doubling their stake in two years. And they don't owe a dime to Uncle Sam, even though the FDIC put up almost three times as much as they did to restore the bank to health.

Even for such talented moneymakers as Warren Buffett, the Nebraska financial genius; Laurence A. Tisch, chairman and chief executive officer of CBS, Inc.; and Richard Ravitch, former chairman of New York's Metropolitan Transportation Authority, $100 million profit on a $100 million investment is a neat piece of change.

No one can fault them and others in their group (they were the only bidders two years ago) for seeking out and making a good deal, or for whipping the Bowery back into profitability. But one can and should condemn the FDIC for this kind of bailout.

Banking expert Paul Nadler told The New York Times: ''What the FDIC said was, 'We'll take over all of the garbage {bad loans}, we'll give you the good stuff, and you get all of the profit.' It was an absolute rape of the public.''

The FDIC likes to say that there is no tax money involved, because the FDIC's insurance kitty comes from premiums paid by the banks. But that cost is ultimately passed on to all bank customers.

Moreover, the faith and credit of the U.S. government stand behind the FDIC (and behind the FSLIC -- Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. -- which insures depositors at S&Ls). And given the record failures of both banks and thrifts, one has to wonder how long before tax money will have to be added directly to FDIC and FSLIC insurance funds.

William Seidman, the current chairman of the FDIC (his predecessor, William M. Isaac, was the one who made the Bowery deal), conceded in an interview that the agency could have taken a contingent interest in any profits to be made by the Buffett-Tisch-Ravitch group, and thus been in a position to whittle back its loss, which now stands at the $275 million figure.

Seidman has done just that in an even bigger bailout, that of the $12 billion First City Bancorp of Texas, holding company for 61 banks in Texas and one in South Dakota. For this second-biggest bank rescue, a private group headed by banker A. Robert Abboud last month agreed to put up $500 million, while the FDIC paid off an insurance loss of about $1 billion.

Having learned something from the Bowery case, Seidman insisted on a contingent hold on Abboud's future profits, through warrants, that could cut the FDIC's $1 billion potential loss by up to $200 million.

When confronted with Bowery's troubles, the FDIC in 1985 had two other options: it could have closed the bank and sold off what assets remained. In that case, Seidman contends, the loss could have been ''at least double the $275 million.'' Or it could have operated the bank itself, brought it back to health and sold it a profit. If it did as well as Buffett-Tisch-Ravitch, it would have cut its loss by $100 million.

But Seidman philosophically rejects the notion of FDIC bank operation: ''We don't think that it's good for the banking system {for us} to run a bank in competition with those we regulate in the private sector, unless there is no alternative.''

In the 1984 Continental Illinois bailout, in which the FDIC did take over the bank and run it because no one put in a bid for it, the government stands to lose about $1.7 billion, Seidman said. The bottom line is that bailouts of any kind are hellishly costly.

According to Seidman, 158 banks failed, or needed help to prevent their going belly up, through Oct. 5, already surpassing last year's all-time record of 144. At that pace, the total will be around 200 this year. At midyear, out of 13,937 banks reporting to the FDIC, 1,609 were on the FDIC ''problem'' list. That's more than one out of every nine in the nation.

So there will be more bank bailouts down the road, more demands for the FDIC to step forward with huge chunks of cash to entice some private group to take over. I think the ideological aversion to FDIC management and operation is open to question in some cases. Why is government operation less desirable than throwing assets away at bargain-basement prices?

Seidman shouldn't worry about competing with banks in the private sector. Too many of them could not keep their doors open without Uncle Sam's help in one form or other.