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WILL TAKE MORE THAN BAILOUT TO SAVE S&LS, STUDY SHOWS

If you want to find out what people think of savings and loan associations, you can take a poll or you can take a look at their savings accounts.

Either way, it's troubling news.Savers took $28.5 billion out of their S&L accounts in the first three months of the year - the worst drain ever, and an outflow that federal regulators blame on the opportunity to earn higher interest rates elsewhere.

But a study of savers' attitudes by Opinion Research Corp. suggests there is more to it than that. In what it describes as "a grim report card for the savings and loan industry," the prominent polling firm found that many savers wouldn't put their money in an S&L no matter what interest rate was offered.

The poll of a thousand savers found "a vast majority are reluctant to entrust their savings to an S&L." If they had a $1,000 windfall to put in a savings account and the local bank and S&L were paying the same interest, seven out of 10 people would put their money in a bank. Only one in five would choose a savings and loan savings account. Even people who already save at a savings and loan would just as soon put their money in a bank.

The Opinion Research poll is circulating among S&L specialists in Congress and the administration who will have to take its implications into account in completing work on the savings and loan bailout plan.

The study suggests that depositors' misgivings about the thrift industry have been fueled rather than cooled by the controversy over government cleanup efforts. "The proposed federal plan to bail out the industry, coming on the heels of a series of fraud allegations and well-publicized bankruptcies, may actually have compounded the public's negative image of S&LS," the pollsters said.

A majority of Americans - and two-thirds of those with S&L accounts - now consider themselves familiar with the thrift industry's problems. Almost one in 10 knows someone who has closed an S&L account in the past six months because of concerns about the safety of their savings. Another 8 percent of S&L savers say they are concerned enough about the safety of their money that they have considered closing their accounts.

Those concerns can be considered surprising - and even misplaced - since both bank and S&L accounts up to $100,000 are fully backed by federal deposit insurance and in all the recent S&L failures, all deposits have been protected without limit. Faith in federal deposit insurance is strong enough that 62 percent of S&L savers report they are "not concerned at all" about the safety of their account.

That's the good news. The bad is what people had to say about S&Ls and what they said it would take to get them to put their money in one.

Long viewed as "the little guy's bank," S&Ls have apparently lost the homespun image associated with Jimmy Stewart in the old movie "It's a Wonderful Life." Says ORC President Andrew J. Brown: "Recent events in the industry may cause the public to think more `The Sting'. The public perception of the local S&L executive as Jimmy Stewart may be irrevocably lost, and the industry's perceived areas of advantage over banks may have been lost with it."

What's a safe place to put your savings? About 55 percent of the people interviewed said a bank was best, and only 14 percent favored S&Ls. More than half said banks were better at being a "neighborhood business"; only 16 percent preferred savings and loans. As for "car-ing about small customers," 40 percent said banks were better, against 27 percent for S&Ls. Goodbye, Jimmy Stewart.

What people said what they like most about S&Ls is that they pay higher interest rates - and even that is a mixed blessing, Opinion Research said. "This preference may condemn the S&L industry to a self-defeating cycle of paying imprudently high interest rates to compensate savers for the perceived higher risk of an S&L account," the pollsters concluded. "And these higher interest rates could further undermine the financial stability of the industry."

Queried about how much extra interest an S&L would have to pay to get their money, the people questioned in the poll said an average of 3.3 percentage points more, and even those who already have an S&L account thought they ought to be getting 2.8 points extra.

Those are unrealistic expectations, far above the premium that even the most outlandish S&Ls have been willing to pay to get deposits and far more than they can afford to pay and still stay healthy. Before interest rates were deregulated, S&Ls were permitted to pay a quarter of a point more than banks on savings accounts, and that was all it took to attract customers.

But the savers' expectations may be no more unrealistic than those of Bush administration officials who are in charge of the S&L rescue plan. They are counting on the industry to grow its way out of some of its problems, adding new deposits at a rate of 7 percent a year - deposits that can be invested in profitable new loans.

Based on past history, a 7 percent growth rate is not out of line and in fact is well below the industry's growth rate for the last decade. If savers simply reinvested the interest they earn, their accounts would grow at pretty close to the projected rate.

Unfortunately, most savers aren't rolling over their interest, according to the Federal Home Loan Bank Board deposit outflow figures released last week. And many aren't about to start putting more money into S&L accounts, if the Opinion Research Corp. poll is accurate.

These two measures of what savers are saying and what they are doing seem to point in the same direction - toward a shrinking savings and loan industry. If that's where we're headed, the savings and loan rescue strategy will need to be changed.