A Lesson from the Latest FDIC Premium Assessments on Banks

Last Friday the four largest banks in American announced their  4th quarter and full year financial results.

All had one new, significant expense in the 4th quarter.  Here are the numbers from the New York Times article: Biggest Banks Earn Billions, Even after Payments to the FDIC Fund-(January 13, 2024)

Bank                         $ FDIC Payment

JP-Morgan                  $2.9 billion

Bank of America        $2.1 billion

Wells Fargo                 $1.9 billion

Citigroup                     $1.7 billion

These premiums are necessary to cover the costs for the FCIC’s losses on bank failures earlier in 2023.   FDIC’s reported  loss expense through the first three quarters of 2023 was $19.7 billion.

The FDIC is collecting approximately $16.3 billion in this fourth quarter assessment. The four largest banks will pay the $8.6 billion shown above  or 53% of the total.

Premiums comprised more than 81% of the FDIC ‘s total revenue through the first three quarters of 2023.  Interest income from the FDIC’s investments, the other revenue source, would cover FDIC ‘s operating expenses.  But the $600 million excess would not even begin to cover the almost $20 billion in estimated  insurance losses.  (all data is through September 30, 2023).

FDIC Premiums and Insured Deposits Not Connected

There is no relationship between premiums and FDIC’s insurance coverage of $250,00 per account.  Instead premiums are calculated on  a bank’s net assets which is called its “assessment base.”  At September 2023 this was $20.7 trillion versus just $10.7 trillion of insured shares.

FDIC’s revenue is no longer based on its stated goal to protect depositors’ savings but rather the FDIC’s  role in stabilizing  the entire industry’s balance sheet.   When banks succeed, shareholders win.  When banks fail, everybody pays.

FDIC’s Complex Pricing Structure

The FDIC may set the premium at whatever level it deems necessary to achieve its minimum ratio goal of 1.35%.  The fund recorded an approximately $10 billion operating loss through the September quarter putting the ratio  at just 1.13%.    The $17 billion new assessment is needed cover this shortfall and grow the fund’s ratio target.

Moreover premium rates can vary from 2.5 to 42 basis points  depending on bank size, that is whether an institution is more or less than $10 billion in assets. The final rate is based on each bank’s CAMELS rating plus, for larger firms, a scorecard which measures  “complexity.”

The assessment rates are so complicated  that the FDIC  posts three different calculators for banks to determine what amount they must pay.

This premium system provides virtually no check and balance on pricing, except the rule making process.  It is frequently “updated” and always open- ended in amount. There is no incentive or check and balance on FDIC effectiveness in its oversight or problem solving roles.  Banks must bear the costs not only from institutional failures but also from FDIC’s supervisory effectiveness, good and bad.

The Cooperative Alternative in the NCUSIF

By comparison the NCUSIF is simple to understand, administer and monitor.  Statements are posted monthly.  Public board  updates on investment returns and overall financial trends are presented at least quarterly so credit unions can track their cooperatively designed fund.

The 1% deposit underwriting means premiums are extremely rare, assessed only four times in 40 years since the 1984 redesign went in effect.   Dividends have been paid out over a dozen times.

When the 1% deposits totals are added to the retained earnings, the investment portfolio remains relative in size to the insured risk at all times.  Investment income has proven adequate to  meet all of the fund’s operating expenses and sustain a stable operating level between 1.2 and 1.3% of insured savings.  Based on the latest November NCUSIF financial report the fund’s equity should be at or above the long-time upper cap of  1.3% at yearend 2023.

With NCUSIF equity at the high end of the .2-.3 range, it means there is over $1.7 billion in additional  reserve for any contingency.  In the October NCUSIF update the CFO reported the five-year loss average since 2017 was only .1 of 1 basis point.  The net actual cash loss so far in 2023  was just $1.0 million in the same update.

With over 40 years of data from all economic cycles, financial crisis and evolving credit union business models, there are decades of real data to validate the NCUSIF’s financial design.  This record shows that to maintain a stable NOL a yield  on investments of 2.5-3.0% would sustain the fund through virtually any growth or economic cycle and any operating contingency.

This historical 1.3 % cap is due for Board review in February based on 2023 yearend earnings.   This decision is an important commitment  of  NCUA  to the credit unions who  underwrite the fund.   Unlike the FDIC’s premium dependency, the NCUSIF’s investment portfolio return has proven to be a reliable,  predictable and sufficient model-in all environments.

Therefore, when net income exceeds the NOL cap, the credit unions are paid a dividend on the excess income recognizing their overall sound performance.  This return is a critical element of the cooperative design.

The FDIC’s premium model is unpredictable, subjective and arbitrary,  and most importantly unrelated to the actual insurance coverage per account.

Why the NCUSIF Design Works

The credit union model is based on the historical operational and cooperative  values on which credit unions are founded.  All participants are treated equally.  Risk and expenses are shared alike for all.  It is democratic and accountable in its structure.

The redesign was accomplished with industry-wide  collaboration and participation.  It required congressional approval. It was based on the oldest of cooperative concepts: self-help.  No government assistance or funding was sought or necessary.

Instead the credit unions put themselves in the law as the underwriters of the fund’s resilience, no matter the circumstance.  This is how they intend to maintain their independence as a separate financial system.  For example the S&L’s were merged with the banks and the FDIC when their system collapsed.   Unlike the for-profit, stockholder owned banking system, the moral hazard examples of excessive risk taking by management are extremely rare in the cooperative model.

Understanding NCUSIF’s unique history and design and why it fits credit unions so well is especially important whenever a new board member comes to NCUA.  It will be especially critical Tanya Otsuka be informed of NCUSIF’s special character and long term performance, as much of her professional background is within the FDIC.

The February NOL setting will be the first of many opportunities she will have to show her understanding of the differences between bank and credit union regulation.  Credit unions should be communicating that distinction now.





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