US thrifts face problems, but analysts see no cause for panic. Depositors could rest easier by putting money in several S&Ls

Millions of Americans with money in savings-and-loans feel concern. Scores of S&Ls, and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corporation which backs them, are in financial trouble. This week the tremors of concern hit about 5 on the Richter scale, after comments by Texas Gov. William Clements caused some people to withdraw their money from Texas thrifts. But most analysts say that even in a worst-case situation, depositors really have little to worry about.

Governor Clements's comments - that the FSLIC will likely pay depositors in failed thrifts only 30 cents on the dollar, and the rest in ``a piece of paper like a bond'' - sent bank regulators and legislators scurrying to reassure the public.

The governor's remarks ``were very ill advised,'' said one bank analyst who asked not to be identified. ``This is how runs start.''

Ill advised or not, Clements's comments serve as an appropriate point to assess whether it is time for thrift depositors to change financial vehicles.

Consider the worst-case possibility. There is a massive run on deposits, beginning in, say, Texas, and slopping over into other states with financially fragile institutions, like Louisiana, Oklahoma, and California.

If that were to happen, FSLIC, the government-backed insurance fund that guarantees up to $100,000 for every depositor, ``could quickly exhaust its resources, even with the supplemental $10 billion,'' says Robert Litan of the Brookings Institution.

Last week Congress passed a law that lets FSLIC raise $10.8 billion over the next three years as a cushion for failing thrifts. That may be only a fraction of what will be needed, however. In Texas and California alone, losses could top $20 billion over the next five years, and they could be twice that for the nation as a whole.

A panic would telescope the losses into a shorter time and might shake confidence in the FSLIC's solvency, making it difficult to sell more bonds.

A panic would affect strong and weak institutions alike. But Dr. Litan believes that for at least the healthy thrifts, the Federal Reserve would act as a lender of last resort, as it did when Continental Illinois nearly went bankrupt three years ago. Despite a run on the large bank, no Continental Illinois depositor lost any money, even if the deposit exceeded $100,000.

Ditto for thrifts, says Doug Green, a spokesman at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board. ``Insured depositors have never lost a penny,'' he says, despite the fact that 1986 saw a record number of thrifts fail.

This year promises to be worse, as some high-flying thrifts cope with risky loans gone sour and conservative thrifts in the Southwest find that even their best customers are in financial trouble. These are the thrifts that could slip through the Federal Reserve's safety net.

``It's unlikely the Fed is going to back institutions that are basically broke,'' Litan says.

But the Fed is not the last net, as M.Danny Wall, the new head of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board, pointed out recently. Congress could enact emergency legislation directing the government to pump more money into the industry, allowing up to $100,000 per deposit to be insured. ``So long as there's a federal government, that's one commitment we'll stand by,'' says a spokesman at the House Banking Subcommittee.

But it could take weeks for Congress to debate where the money is to come from. And when it comes to delays, history is not encouraging.

In Maryland, thousands of people who had money in two privately insured savings-and-loans that failed in May 1985 still do not have access to their money. They will eventually get all their money out, but it may not be until December 1989 - and then without interest.

After the run on Ohio's privately insured savings-and-loans in March 1985, people were able to withdraw all of their money, plus interest - but it took 13 months. The delay for a failed thrift insured by the federal government would likely be shorter.

There is one other, longer-term worry. In the future, healthy thrifts may balk at the hefty fees they pay FSLIC to keep their troubled brethren afloat, and try to jump over to the FDIC. (The Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation generally insures commercial banks.)

That would leave FSLIC with a high percentage of dues-using, rather than dues-paying, members. The banking law passed last week prohibits thrifts from leaving FSLIC for a year. The new law also confirms an ``exit fee'' for thrifts wishing to leave FSLIC. (The penalty had been challenged in a Florida court.) While this will nip a potential exodus in the bud, the measure is stopgap and the problem may arise later.

The consensus among financial analysts is that a depositor is safe if his deposit does not exceed $100,000 at any one institution. But if there is a run, he may not have immediate access to the money. Financial planners suggest these strategies for depositors:

First, withdraw any money over $100,000 from the account (or several accounts in the same thrift) and put it into another thrift or a commercial bank. Many people are doing this, even if their deposits are below $100,000. The Federal Home Loan Bank Board reports $15.6 billion more in thrift withdrawals than deposits over the last six months.

Second, if you need to have steady access to money - in, say, a checking account - you might want to move it to a commercial bank, says Bill Carter, president of Carter Financial Management in Dallas. And a big bank is more likely to be shored up by the federal government than a small one.

Third, keep a keen eye out for thrifts that may be on the edge. Mark Bass, a Lubbock, Texas, financial adviser, notes, ``If they're paying one to two points higher [in interest on deposits] than other thrifts and commercial banks, that's a red flag.''

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