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Global Credit Crisis

While Congress debates, FDIC steps to fore of credit crisis

The agency saves taxpayer money by arranging quick private buyouts of WaMu and Wachovia. Surviving banks get bigger.

By / October 1, 2008



Even as proposals for a financial bailout dominate the news, an existing federal agency – the FDIC – has stepped into a prominent role as crisis manager of last resort for faltering banks.

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In the past week, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has become a major deal broker in a manner that would normally make its actions a lead-the-news story. With two of America’s 10 largest deposit-taking institutions looking like dominoes that could fall, the FDIC made a quick call: Wachovia and Washington Mutual would be sold now rather than potentially cost the government later.

The actions are not without controversy. Shareholders were all but wiped out and now two other giant banks have become larger still – Citigroup by buying Wachovia, and JPMorgan Chase by buying WaMu.

But to many experts in bank regulation, the moves are a reassuring sign that the nation’s defender of depositors is on the case. They say the FDIC will continue to play a big role, even if Congress approves other rescue efforts.

“The FDIC has been very efficient at closing banks quickly, so that it hasn’t had to put much money in” to save depositors, says Peter Morici, an economist at the University of Maryland. “It is good if it remains proactive.”

Congress is weighing other measures to revive the financial system, such as by allowing the Treasury to buy distressed bank debts that have caused investor confidence to fray. If such measures go forward, banks will still fail, Mr. Morici says. When the FDIC steps in promptly, he says “it mitigates the losses” that bank failures create for taxpayers and the economy.

In both the WaMu and Wachovia cases, the FDIC was able to resolve problems without tapping its Deposit Insurance Fund, which banks pay into to insure depositors. That was achieved by acting early, so that the banks were in shape for quick resale.

The moves have thrust FDIC chairman Sheila Bair into the limelight, and not only for her influence when banks falter. She’s also busy trying to bolster the confidence of depositors even as she prods banks to dig out of trouble.

“You simply must accept that the credit downturn is far from over,” she told the Florida Bankers Association last month. “It’s a tough slog, but there’s no easy way out.”

The agency regulates US banks, alongside the Federal Reserve and the Treasury’s Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.

It expects to handle more bank failures in months to come.

“There’s going to be more work to be done,” says Brian Bethune, an economist at Global Insight, a forecasting firm in Lexington, Mass.

But despite a mood of near panic in credit markets in recent weeks, most banks remain safely managed and diversified in their operations, and not overly exposed to risky mortgage loans, he says.

The banks in deep trouble tend to be those most exposed to real estate busts (such as Florida’s or California’s) or an otherwise sagging economy (such as Ohio’s). Even then, bank failures tend to involve poor risk-management, not just being in the wrong location.

In her Florida speech, Bair said that 98 percent of banks are well-capitalized, accounting for 99 percent of total bank assets.

Still the combination of investor uncertainty and a weakening economy have in recent weeks created a kind of run-on-the-bank mentality that poses its own risk to the financial system.

“Now we’re definitely into contagion, and that’s problematic,” Mr. Bethune says. “The media is contributing to this by putting certain [bank] names out there…. That’s led to a lot of withdrawal of deposits, even though the deposits are insured. It’s obviously very dangerous.”

A new Gallup survey of affluent Americans finds that only 21 percent have a “great deal” or “quite a lot” of faith in banks and other financial firms, down from 40 percent at the end of August.

Many people are dividing their money among several institutions, Morici says.
Several moves are under way to try to restore calm. The FDIC may get authorization to insure accounts of up to $250,000, versus the limit of $100,000 now in place (with a $250,000 current limit for retirement accounts).

The FDIC also launched an ad campaign Wednesday to expand awareness of deposit insurance. To quell waves of concern beyond regulated banks, the Treasury recently announced a plan to insure money market mutual funds.

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