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How big a bailout for S&Ls?

The speed with which Congress is moving to shore up the troubled US savings and loan institutions reflects a concern that the thrift industry is too vital to the American economy to be left to fend for itself in this period of financial difficulty. But the public ought to be concerned that lawmakers may be setting a far-reaching precedent which could be cited by other ''problem'' industries also seeking federal help.

What sets the new legislation apart from previous federal ''bailout'' measures is not its potential cost (unknown at this point), but its comprehensiveness. It is designed to aid not just a specific firm (such as Lockheed or Chrysler) but an entire industry. Under bills now passed both by the House and by the Senate Banking Committee, no direct federal appropriations would be provided to back up problem S&Ls or mutual savings banks. Rather, the government would provide troubled thrifts with federally backed promissory notes to help bolster the net worth of the institutions. As pointed out recently by a prominent savings and loan official, such a policy would in effect constitute a form of ''nationalization'' for at least the bottom third of the thrift industry.

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Some parts of the measure unanimously approved by the Senate Banking Committee last week are long overdue. Granted, they tend to hasten the current trend of thrifts and commercial banks to become more and more alike in the types of services they offer. But at a time when competition between various types of financial institutions is greater than ever, that by itself may not be unwelcome. Under the Senate measure, both thrifts and commercial banks would be authorized to set up short-term accounts that would be competitive with money market funds. S&Ls would also be empowered to put up to 15 percent of their assets into commercial loans and federal S&Ls would be allowed to provide checking accounts.

Still, it is the provision providing federal assistance for ailing thrifts that poses long-range questions. Under the plan, troubled institutions could receive ''income capital certificates''from federal insurance agencies to bolster their net worth. The institutions would in turn provide the insurer with promissory notes for the certificates. By one estimate, as many as 1,430 S&Ls might qualify for capital infusions by the end of 1984 under the Senate plan and an even greater number under the House version. Supporters of the idea insist that eventual costs would be less than the costs of having to step in and liquidate or merge failing institutions.

That issue needs to be carefully explored by the full Senate. America's thrift industry - which is the main ''well'' of funds for the housing market - must not be allowed to deteriorate. At the same time lawmakers should consider carefully the extent to which any troubled industry in the US should be propped up by government help. Industry bailouts - by whatever strategem - are unwise unless the need is seen to be overwhelming.

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