Word of the move by FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair came Thursday, four days after she warned that the fund insuring Americans' deposits could be wiped out this year without the new fees on U.S. banks and thrifts. Banks, especially smaller community banks, have been chafing over the new insurance fees, saying they will place an extra burden on an already struggling industry.
"Certainly that's a good confidence builder for the investing public," financial expert Doreen Mogavero told CBS' The Early Show of the FDIC's moves, adding "there isn't a lot of confidence these days."
Bair is agreeing to cut the new emergency premium, to be collected from all federally-insured institutions on Sept. 30, to 10 cents for every $100 of their insured deposits from the 20 cents the FDIC approved last Friday. That compares with an average premium of 6.3 cents paid by banks and thrifts last year.
At the same time, the FDIC has been seeking a permanent increase in its line of credit with the Treasury Department to $100 billion from the current $30 billion. The agency has never drawn on that long-term credit line, but Bair told lawmakers in letters Thursday that such an increase "would leave no doubt that the FDIC will have the resources necessary to address future contingencies and seamlessly fulfill the government's commitment to protect insured depositors against loss."
FDIC spokesman Andrew Gray said the idea behind increasing the credit line is to give the agency additional flexibility in funding, and is unrelated to its ability to meet obligations to bank depositors.
The FDIC is "backed by the full faith and credit of the United States government," Gray said. "We can and always will be able to meet our obligations to depositors."
In addition to $18.9 billion now in the insurance fund, the FDIC also has a contingency reserve of $22.4 billion set aside for potential bank failures this year.
Housing rescue legislation approved by the House on Thursday evening includes the boosted borrowing authority for the FDIC. The package faces a tougher road in the Senate amid the same banking industry opposition and reservations among moderate Democrats that nearly derailed it in the House.
Looking to enhance those prospects in the Senate for the expanded FDIC borrowing authority, Banking Committee Chairman Sen. Christopher Dodd, D-Conn., has authored specific legislation to do that. He was expected to soon introduce the measure, which also would provide a temporary increase in the FDIC's credit line to as much as $500 billion until Dec. 31, 2010 - with required approval of the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and other federal regulators.
In a letter to Dodd Thursday, Bair said raising the permanent credit line to $100 billion "would give the FDIC flexibility to reduce the size" of the emergency premium to be charged to banks.
Dodd spokeswoman Kate Szostak declined to comment.
The twin moves "are important for maintaining a strong deposit insurance fund while also ensuring that banks can continue to meet the credit needs of their communities," Edward Yingling, president and CEO of the American Bankers Association, said in a statement.
"We remain deeply concerned about (the cost of the new premium) and appreciate the FDIC's willingness to consider alternative approaches," he said.
As the economy sours, home prices tumble and loan defaults soar, bank failures have cascaded and sapped billions out of the fund that insures regular accounts up to $250,000. The fund now stands at its lowest level in nearly a quarter-century, $18.9 billion as of Dec. 31, compared with $52.4 billion at the end of 2007.
The law requires the insurance fund to be maintained at a certain minimum level, but it fell below the mandated 1.15 percent of total insured deposits in mid-2008.
The FDIC now expects that bank failures will cost the insurance fund around $65 billion through 2013, up from an earlier estimate of $40 billion. There have been 16 bank collapses already this year, following 25 in 2008 - which included two of the biggest savings and loans, Washington Mutual Inc. and IndyMac Bank.
The new emergency premium approved last week, plus an increase in regular insurance fees for banks, was intended to raise $27 billion this year to replenish the fund. The regular insurance premiums will rise to between 12 and 16 cents for every $100 in deposits starting in April, up from a range of 12 to 14 cents.