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FDIC Passes Around Collection Plate


Regulator braces for bank failures by scrounging up money.

Poor, poor FDIC - ever the Treasury Department's whipping boy.

The latter gets to smack the former around like a badminton birdie because the FDIC's primary responsibility is to clean up the Treasury's messes. And these days, there are messes aplenty.

It goes like this: The Treasury oversees a regulatory body called the Office of Thrift Supervision, or OTS, that's tasked with keeping tabs on federal thrifts (which are just mortgage companies moonlighting as federally chartered banks).

Until recently, the OTS was responsible for monitoring IndyMac Bancorp, which collapsed last month under the weight of misplaced mortgage bets. The FDIC is now sorting out the mess. The OTS also oversees such thriving institutions as Washington Mutual (WM), BankUnited (BKUNA) and Downey Savings (DSL).

Since the OTS's idea of regulation is apparently to wake up late, sip a latte and spend the day diligently ignoring the wildly unsafe lending practices of its member banks, the FDIC is up to its ears in barely solvent financial institutions.

The FDIC charges deposit-taking institutions fees about $0.05 per $100 in deposits to display the group's goofy logo (which dates to its Depression-era roots). This is meant to assure customers their money's safe, even if the bank's risk management policies aren't.

When banks go belly up, the FDIC steps in and covers depositors up to $100,000. In the case of IndyMac, this could cost up to $8 billion. The FDIC's insurance fund stood at just $53 billion pre-IndyMac, and is now so low it's been forced to come up with an action plan to raise more money.

The options aren't exactly palatable.

It could jack up the fees it charges member banks, but with so many teetering on the edge of insolvency, they don't exactly have a lot of cash to spare. The FDIC also has a $30 billion line of credit from the Treasury Department, but it's loath to tap into it, lest it appear desperate.

Finally, it could borrow from the Federal Reserve, and join other flailing institutions like Lehman Brothers (LEH) and Merrill Lynch (MER), both of which have submerged themselves the warm bath of cheap Federal money.

As the credit crunch migrates outward from its epicenter on Wall Street and infects Main Street, local banks and thrifts are becoming ensnared in troubles previously reserved for complex securities firms. Small banks are often heavily levered to construction firms, small businesses and individuals in their surrounding communities, and are particularly vulnerable to regionalized economic slowdowns.

Downey Savings (in Orange County) and BankUnited (in South Florida), for example, are at the heart of the housing bust. Their local economies are sagging under the weight of job losses in both the construction and mortgage industries, as well as fallout from plummeting home prices. Both banks bet heavily on ill-fated Option ARMs during the boom, and neither is likely to survive the current crisis.

Now, the FDIC's challenge is to raise sufficient funds to cover the coming wave of bank failures - without putting undue stress on the already shaky banking system or igniting fears that it would need to tap taxpayers' money to protect, well, taxpayers' money.
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