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BANKING SYSTEM'S DEATH IS EXAGGERATED

The latest definition of a Washington insider is someone who can tell you - confidently, of course - that things are much worse in the banking system than bank regulators are willing to admit.

Never mind that 90 percent of commercial banks and 85 percent of privately operated savings-and-loan associations are making money. Banks and S&Ls are said to be saddled with so many bad real-estate loans that paper profits don't mean much at this point.The reality, according to insiders, is that hundreds of banks that seem to be surviving are slipping into the twilight zone instead.

Some of the warnings are worth heeding because they come from people who have legitimate concerns.

Charles Bowsher, who heads the General Accounting Office, says bank failures could turn out to be the "Achilles' heel" of the Bush administration. Joe Allbritton, chairman of Riggs National Bank, the largest in the nation's capital, is downright doleful about the future. "You ain't seen nothing yet," he predicts.

Allbritton is speaking from sad experience. More than half the banks in Washington lost money in the first quarter.

But the fact that some of the more aggressive banks and S&Ls in the Northeast and in Sun Belt states like Florida, California and Texas are losing money doesn't mean the banking system is about to collapse. There are more than 12,000 federally insured banks in this country. We can afford some losses without declaring a national emergency.

I don't mean to minimize the problems in the banking system. They're serious. At some point, taxpayers may be forced to help bail out the banks, just as they've been helping to clean up the wreckage of hundreds of failed S&Ls.

But the constant drumbeat by columnists and talk-show panelists over banks that could fail or might fail is enough to revive the keep-the-money-under-your-mattress school of banking that thrived during the Great Depression.

For every shaky bank, there are a dozen sound banks, including some of the banks with bad loans that took temporary losses in the first three months of this year.

The worst rap against the banking system is that so many dying banks have been kept alive artificially long after they should have been shut down or sold to the highest bidder.

A report by the House Banking Committee complains that the Federal Reserve Board has pumped billions of dollars into sick banks that later failed.

The too-big-to-fail doctrine, which guarantees that even uninsured depositors of failing banks will get their money back, is an illogical extension of this misguided policy of preventing pain.

The bad apples are tainting the banking system. But the system is in no danger of self-destructing.