We need crises every now and then to keep us on our toes. The FDIC is among the best things that came out of the Depression, but like all worthwhile things it requires a little maintenance, and it looks like we got a little lax (which means that your deposits in your bank are in far greater danger than you thought possible).
I thought things were under better control than this, but I thought wrong. When the business class runs government, as it has for the last 30 years, tedious maintenance tasks don't get done (like the folks in New Orleans found out when Hurricane Katrina kicked aside the levees). Maintenance is the job of those reviled creatures, the bureaucrats. Maintenance is not sexy, like leveraged buyouts. Because of this oversight, all we need is one more Big Financial Gust to generate the Mother Of All Bank Runs and break America's middle class:
The federal agency that insures bank deposits, which is asking for emergency powers to borrow up to $500 billion to take over failed banks, is facing a potential major shortfall in part because it collected no insurance premiums from most banks from 1996 to 2006.
The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, which insures deposits up to $250,000, tried for years to get congressional authority to collect the premiums in case of a looming crisis. But Congress believed that the fund was so well-capitalized - and that bank failures were so infrequent - that there was no need to collect the premiums for a decade, according to banking officials and analysts.
Now with 25 banks having failed last year, 17 so far this year, and many more expected in the coming months, the FDIC has proposed large new premiums for banks at the very time when many can least afford to pay. The agency collected $3 billion in the fees last year and has proposed collecting up to $27 billion this year, prompting an outcry from some banks that say it will force them to raise consumer fees and curtail lending.
To possibly reduce the fee increase, the FDIC has asked Congress for the temporary authority to borrow as much as $500 billion from the US Treasury - up from the current $30 billion limit - in case the number of bank failures increases even more dramatically. If Congress approves the measure, to borrow more than $100 billion, the FDIC would still need permission from the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department, and the White House.
As of Dec. 31, the FDIC had $18.9 billion in its insurance fund - down from $52.4 billion a year earlier - in addition to $22 billion that it has set aside for pending bank failures. The agency has projected it will need $65 billion to take over failed banks through 2013.
But if the FDIC suddenly had to take over a giant bank such as Citigroup or Bank of America, the fund would be drained "in a flash," said Cornelius Hurley, director of the Boston University law school's Morin Center for Banking and Financial Law.
Last week, FDIC chairwoman Sheila Bair wrote to Senate Banking Committee chairman Christopher Dodd, a Connecticut Democrat, that her agency could need more money because the existing fund "provides a thin margin of error" given the government's responsibility "to cover unforeseen losses." The March 5 letter, provided to the Globe, said the additional borrowing authority is necessary to "leave no doubt" that the FDIC can "fulfill the government's commitment to protect insured depositors against loss."
Bair said yesterday that the agency's failure to collect premiums from most banks "was surprising to me and of concern." As a Treasury Department official in 2001, she said, she testified on Capitol Hill about the need to impose the fees, but nothing happened. Congress did not grant the authority for the fees until 2006, just weeks before Bair took over the FDIC. She then used that authority to impose the fees over the objections of some within the banking industry.
"That is five years of very healthy good times in banking that could have been used to build up the reserve," Bair, a former professor at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, said in an interview. "That is how we find ourselves where we are today. An important lesson going forward is we need to be building up these funds in good times so you can draw down upon them in bad times."