ROSS PEROT muffed one test of presidential leadership when, in the third debate, he recklessly asserted that a $100 billion commercial-bank crisis will erupt soon after the election. That kind of talk from a president or Cabinet officer can panic depositors and stampede financial markets.
Not that Mr. Perot concocted his charge from thin air. Concern is growing that America's commercial-banking system is weaker than the public has been told. Perot's comment was made in response to a journalist's question which reflected alarm that American taxpayers could be stuck with a bank-salvage bill rivaling the savings-and-loan tab.
Although the issue has been around for a while (hundreds of American banks, including a few major ones like the Bank of New England, have failed in the last few years), it has been given new urgency by a just-published study called "Banking on the Brink - The Troubled Future of American Finance," written by a university professor and a bank consultant. Perot made what was evidently a reference to this study, although his $100 billion bombshell exceeds even the authors' worst-case projection of banking lo sses.
Perot was picking up on speculation over a "December surprise." Under regulations that take effect Dec. 19, the federal government will be obligated to close banks that don't meet a "2 percent" test regarding their capital cushion against loan losses.
Despite warnings such as Perot's that the mandated government takeovers of weak banks will produce a major financial shock, most government and banking-industry analysts believe that the costs of the new rules will be far more modest and will be manageable with current federal resources. They say that a taxpayer bailout won't be required, or in any event will be much smaller than the S&L rescue.
A charge like Perot's gains credibility in part because of the way George Bush and Michael Dukakis, in a conspiracy of silence, ignored the looming S&L crisis during the 1988 campaign. Soon after the '88 election the S&L storm broke, and the American people will pay the cost for years to come. Perot is certainly correct that, if a major banking crisis is on the horizon, the public deserves to be told.
There are serious problems in the banking industry, but they are medium- and long-term problems more than imminent ones. The next president will have to work with Congress to devise solutions to those problems. Ross Perot is right that the issue will require effective leadership.
But in his loose-cannon volley in Debate III, Perot didn't give evidence that he's the man to provide that leadership.