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No IOUs for S&Ls

A ''nationalized'' US savings and loan industry? Such a scenario seems improbable, given the stoutly free-enterprise inclinations of the US banking community. But one prominent savings and loan official spells out the obvious when he says that current congressional plans to aid the financially troubled thrift industry may eventually constitute a form of nationalization for at least the bottom third of the industry.

Under the plan being hammered out in Washington the US Treasury would issue IOUs--loans, in effect--to troubled savings institutions. But these IOUs could eventually cost taxpayers up to $8 billion or more.

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Under the House plan, already passed, problem thrifts could receive IOUs from the Treasury to maintain their net worth of 2 percent of assets. Net worth is that amount of assets left after subtracting liabilities. The Senate formula, now under discussion in committee, is somewhat different. The Treasury would issue IOUs to make up to 30 percent to 50 percent of losses at institutions where net worth falls below 3 percent of assets.

So, assuming a ''problem S&L'' turns a profit, the ''loan'' is repaid. If not , the Treasury assumes a financial loss.

What's going on here? The US thrift industry--savings and loan associations and mutual savings banks-- are caught in a bad cost-price squeeze. Because of soaring interest rates, they are forced to pay out high interest on savings deposits, while they earn money on home mortgage loans made at much lower interest rates years back. The upshot: as many as 600 S&Ls may need some form of federal assistance by the end of this year just to stay afloat.

Surely the Reagan administration and federal banking agencies must take all reasonable steps to aid the troubled thrifts, which, after all, are the primary sources of home mortgage funds. To that end, the thrift industry has already been substantially deregulated; that is, it can now provide a broad range of traditional banking services. Congress also gave the industry special help when it authorized ''All Saver Certificates.'' The government can also spur mergers betweeen healthy and problem S&Ls.

The rescue proposals involving federal IOUs, however, could involve the federal government in a protracted and costly special-interest program. While toying with such dubious schemes as this, Congress is also considering an equally expensive bailout for the housing industry. But what comes next? Steel? Autos? Agriculture?

Congress would be on better ground by doing its part to bring high interest rates down. That means enacting a new budget. The last thing the American people need at this time of fiscal retrenchment is a succession of costly new federal bailout programs.

The proposed IOU plan should be rejected by Congress or, if passed, vetoed by President Reagan.

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