WASHINGTON is getting grim tidings this Christmas from the nation's banks. Not all banks are in trouble. But many are, and this is starting to strain the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, whose reserves guarantee the safety of bank deposits in commercial banks.
This doesn't mean individual depositors will have to absorb losses. Washington and the banks must and will keep their word on guaranteeing deposits up to $100,000.
Conceivably, however, it could mean some form of taxpayer bailout for the insurance funds that support that no-loss pledge.
Now, the federal deposit insurance agency maintains a Bank Insurance Fund. Used to pay off losses from failed banks, it is financed with fees paid by participating banks. In other words, the FDIC guarantee is backed up by bank contributions, not by the taxpayers.
What has happened in recent years is that the fund's once-huge reserves have shrunk rapidly as more money was paid out to offset the losses of failing banks than was received in fees from healthy banks.
This year, according to L. William Seidman, FDIC chairman, those net losses will amount to $4 billion; next year, another $5 billion. At the end of 1986, the bank reserve fund had a balance of more than $18 billion. Today it's half that. If Seidman's projections are accurate, a year from now those reserves could dip to $4 billion.
That would happen even though the fees charged member banks will jump by more than 60 percent next month.
Obviously, net losses of $4 billion and $5 billion a year cannot continue with only $5 billion a year in new money coming in.
The bedrock requirement is to retain public confidence in the banks. That means, among other things, that individual deposits up to the $100,000 limit be protected without any ifs, ands or buts.
Moreover, the public, sensitized to the perils of buccaneer banking and all too aware of the cost to taxpayers, should not be asked to bail out the FDIC insurance funds in addition to the S&Ls.
At worst, any taxpayer subsidy should be kept to an absolute minimum. The federal budget cannot afford this, and neither can the taxpayers.
This is a policy area, and a bank regulatory structure, that has built its reputation on the experience of more than 50 years. The bankers themselves benefit most from the confidence it inspires in depositors. Any additional infusions of new money into the fund, as Seidman rightly testified before Congress, "should and could be financed by the banking industry, not by the American taxpayer." We fervently hope so.
For several reasons, including bad loans on real estate and to the Third World, American banking is undergoing problems, some severe. There's no doubt this strains the FDIC system and its bank reserves.
For the longer term, the system may require fundamental reforms. Right now it is being tested. If it is only half as good as its proponents contend, it may bend -- but it won't break.