AS THE costs of the S&L disaster steadily rise, taxpayers' fury is more than justified. But it's giving new life to serious misunderstandings about the billions of bail-out dollars and where they're going. These misunderstandings are diverting attention from what really went wrong and what really needs to be fixed.
One is the accusation that the cleanup constitutes a huge transfer of wealth from the North and East to the Southwest. That one picked up new momentum at the annual meeting of the National Governors Association, where Gov. Madeleine M. Kunin of Vermont angrily protested the burden on people who live in states where there have been few S&L failures or none. Their money, she argued, will go to build up the infrastructure of their competitors in the Sunbelt.
That's wrong -- like the closely related charge that these billions are being used to bail out the S&L industry. In fact the S&L industry is in rapid decline, and the owners of the bankrupt institutions aren't being rescued by the government or anyone else. It's the depositors who are being bailed out. The federal government is making good on its promise to them.
Gov. Kunin is correct in saying that most of the biggest S&L failures were in the Southwest. That was largely because of lax state laws there that encouraged speculation. But their depositors were all over the country. Most of the big S&Ls that went bankrupt were competing furiously for brokered deposits -- money being placed by professional managers who moved it around restlessly by phone and telex in search of the highest interest rates available. A lot of that money came from the Northeast.
Some of it may have come from Gov. Kunin's constituents in Vermont. But the Vermonters' money is safe because of federal deposit insurance, and paying them off will be part of the cost of the bail-out. To know the addresses of the failed S&Ls doesn't tell you anything about the distribution of the insurance payments. It's the addresses of the depositors that count, and by no means do all of them live in the same states as the wayward institutions to which they entrusted their money.
Incidentally, the governors' association has added its weight to the demands for an independent study of the causes of this enormously expensive failure of financial regulation. The current crop of misunderstandings suggests a need for an explanation that is impartial, authoritative and clear.