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FDIC Strapped Because It Quit Collecting Premiums in Good Times

Did you ever do something that, with the benefit of hindsight, seemed really, really stupid and you wondered what exactly you were thinking at the time?

Imagine how the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation must feel these days. The same agency that now says it needs to borrow $500 billion in emergency funds to take over failed banks collected no insurance premiums from most banks for nearly an entire decade, The Boston Globe reports.

The practice lasted from 1996 to 2006, according to The Globe.

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.

This practice doesn’t look too smart these days, now does it? Here’s how FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair explains what happened:

Last week, 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.”

Yes, a very “important lesson.” Although, I think it’s a bit of an understatement, considering the FDIC — whose primary mission is to provide insurance for bank deposits — failed to, you know, *collect insurance premiums *from the banks it insures. Oh, well. Live and learn.

And we should probably hope that not too many more banks need to be taken over by the FDIC.

(Via Balloon Juice)

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