Tapping out an S.O.S.

When we last left the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Depression-era aqency that backs up our bank accounts was trying to keep a lid on a ”secret” list it had compiled of 90 U.S. banks teetering on the edge of failure.

FDIC’s big brothers over at the Securities and Exchange Commission warned everybody not to spread any unsubstantiated ”false” rumors about this list, lest it spawn another wave of financial heebie-jeebies.

Well, it turns out that there are not 90 banks on the FDIC’s critical list. That’s because the FDIC is now publicly reporting that 117 U.S. banks are about as stable as the San Andreas fault.

Even worse, the FDIC chairman went over to the Treasury Department this week and banged a tin cup on the big iron door in front of the place where they print our George Washingtons and Ben Franklins.

Apparently, FDIC’s $45 billion reserve fund is not sufficient to cover the deposits in the banks that are now on life-support. Since the 1930s, FDIC has backed up every deposit up to $100,000 in most U.S. banks.

FDIC has informed Treasury that it may have to tap into some ”short-term lines of credit” that were established in the early 1990s to deal with the last widescale banking crisis in the U.S.

When the federal banking guarantor last dipped into this emergency federal well in 1991, it needed more than $15 billion to bail out the banking speculators. The money was repaid by the end of the following year.

This year’s emergency ”loan” from the national pocketbook will probably be a lot larger and will take a lot longer to be paid off, since it may take years to sell off the assets of this year’s domino-chain of collapsing banks.

Fortunately, not all of the financial news coming out of Washington this week was gloomy. Over at the IRS, they announced that the number of individuals reporting more than $20 million in annual income has grown in the U.S. by 62 percent during the past 20 years.

There are now nearly 47,000 ultra-rich Americans, up from 26,000 in 1998.

Now, if we can just convince some of these really fat cats to invest in a few failing banks…