FDIC to allow non-banks bid for troubled banks

NEW YORK (AP) -- Non-banks will soon be able to bid for banks on the verge of collapse - a change that should not only keep more troubled banks from failing, but also benefit companies looking to get funding through deposits and the government.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. said Wednesday it is establishing a "modified bidder qualification process" to "allow interested parties that do not currently have a bank charter to participate in the bid process through which failing depository institutions are resolved."

As long as an investor has a compliant business plan, enough capital available, and managers that meet strict standards, the FDIC said, that investor can quickly get a bank charter and deposit insurance and bid for a failing bank - without having an established bank already in place, a requirement of the past.

With 22 bank failures so far this year and 171 banks on the FDIC's troubled bank list, the government is worried about more collapses. When a bank fails, it uses up taxpayer dollars. So expanding the list of potential bidders to non-banks could help stanch that tide.

But there are advantages to non-banks, too. The desire to become a bank might seem counterintuitive to outsiders watching the companies take massive losses quarter after quarter from their risky loans. But it's the chance to gather deposits - a good source of funding right now - and possibly get an investment through the government's Temporary Assets Relief Program, which at this point is only available to commercial banks.

The decision by the FDIC to alter its bidding process was actually in response to requests from investors interested in buying troubled institutions and who did not have a bank charter, FDIC spokesman David Barr said. He declined to comment on who those investors were.

"The great movement in recent weeks and months has been toward becoming a bank, because of the perceived advantages in the current environment," said Jim Wilcox, professor of financial institutions at the University of California, Berkeley's Haas Business School. A bank can "raise funds through insured despoits, and have the seal of approval that comes with being a federally supervised and examined institution."

The new bidding process could be attractive to companies including insurance companies and hedge funds, Wilcox said.

Credit card lender American Express Co. and investment banks Morgan Stanley and Goldman Sachs Group Inc. are companies that have decided to become deposit-gathering commercial banks in recent months.

Deposit gathering is one of the few reliable funding sources right now, as the credit markets remain tight, banks get more wary about lending, and people take more money out of their investments and sock it away in deposit accounts.

"It's the temporary port in this particular storm," Wilcox said.

Finding a buyer for a bank on the verge of collapse is the main way the FDIC prevents bank failures - for example, the government's getting Citigroup Inc. and Wells Fargo & Co. to bid for Wachovia Corp. kept the Charlotte, N.C.-based bank from failing.

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