Lisa Marshall calls herself a "conservative saver," but even the thrifty have gotten burned in the banking chaos of 2008.
Marshall, a 44-year-old sales professional from Manhattan Beach, Calif., spent several years building up a nest egg for herself and her family. Wary of risks in stock and bond investments, she shopped around for the best rates on certificates of deposit, placing her savings in
By the time the troubled thrift collapsed on July 11, Marshall had built up enough savings to render the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s $100,000 of deposit insurance insufficient to cover all of her funds. Although Congress voted in October to temporarily raise the FDIC insurance cap to $250,000 for each person with a stake in a bank account, for Marshall and thousands of other IndyMac patrons, it was too little, too late.
"Maybe it was a well-known fact among the upper echelon who are really in the financial know, but not among the common people," Marshall says of IndyMac's impending collapse. "I said to myself, 'Let me stuff this
money away and not invest it in other things,' and then July just hit. Had I known that, I would have gone out and bought a used Maserati."
Millions of Americans have glued their eyes to television screens and news reports this year, anxiously worrying about the fate of their money as banks teetered on the brink of collapse. Twenty-three banks have collapsed, and several others have been acquired or bailed out by the government. But IndyMac seems to be a glaring exception when it comes to customers losing their savings at a major firm.
There are 10,000 depositors like Marshall who must wait until the FDIC liquidates the bank's assets to be made whole, with no guarantees. In light of costly government initiatives to shore up the financial markets, restructure mortgages for distressed borrowers, and rescue dozens of other institutions, some IndyMac patrons feel left out in the cold.
Fran Quittel, a recruiter for technology companies in the San Francisco Bay area, is another uninsured IndyMac depositor who has joined forces with her disparaged peers to draw attention to their predicament. Quittel holds the government responsible, angry that Congress has moved to raise insurance limits and structure massive bailouts, while ignoring their plight.
"IndyMac was the one institution that triggered everything else," says Quittel, "and there is no reason that IndyMac depositors should suffer unfairly. All the institutions that failed after IndyMac, the depositors were made whole 100% of the time."
IndyMac was the first major bank failure of 2008 -- and the third largest in the history of the FDIC -- due to heavy exposure to the troubled housing market in its home state of California. Since then, the Pasadena-based thrift's collapse has been overshadowed by the much larger failure of
and panics surrounding
However, those millions of customers were protected by
acquisition of WaMu assets,
takeover of Wachovia, and the federal government's rescue of Citi.
Some find a troubling disparity between the government's costly bailouts for companies they say did little to deserve taxpayer dollars -- or even held a starring role in the economic meltdown. Financial firms that gambled heavily in risk have become beneficiaries, and the struggling Detroit automakers
are next on the list. The government has also begun modifying mortgages for some subprime borrowers who knowingly purchased homes they couldn't afford.
The initiatives may prevent further financial-market turmoil, or a massive recession, but can also give credence to cries of "unfair" from a handful of depositors in Southern California.
Of IndyMac's $19.06 billion in total deposits, only about $541 million were uninsured. After the FDIC issued a 50% advance on those funds, only $270 million in uninsured deposits remain to be recovered. That's a mere fraction of the $700 billion rescue plan for the financial-services industry, the $300 billion federal guarantee of Citi's toxic assets, the $150 billion rescue package for AIG, the $14 billion in loans for automakers or the potentially billions that will be spent as a result of the federal takeover of mortgage-finance siblings
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Steve Stanek, a research fellow at the conservative Heartland Institute, says IndyMac's depositors have become victims of warped justice. Stanek, a harsh critic of the government's bailout packages, believes IndyMac patrons are entitled to one because they had a reasonable expectation that their money was safe.
"We've had a financial system collapse that has occurred with the SEC, FDIC, the Fed looking at things, Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac regulators looking over everything," notes Stanek. "I think it's difficult for an ordinary person to know what the financial situation of these institutions really are. How can an ordinary person know more than the banking regulators and credit agencies know?"
But while sympathy abounds for depositors' unenviable position, others argue that it is simply a case of caveat emptor -- or, in this case, depositor beware.
The FDIC's deposit cap of $100,000 was common knowledge after being in place for nearly three decades. Furthermore, not all patrons sat on their hands, as IndyMac's impending failure garnered enough attention to spur a run on the bank. IndyMac was ultimately forced to close its doors after customers withdrew more than $1.3 billion in the days after Sen. Charles Schumer publicized his concerns about the troubled institution.
One might imagine that those with significant holdings would have been at the front of the line. But the naiveté of some has provided important lessons: Marshall holds a receiver certificate for more than $50,000 that may never translate into cash, while Quittel holds one for more than $10,000.
The FDIC on Friday took pains to reassure Americans that their bank deposits are safe, in response to a
"Wealth in America" survey showed flagging confidence in the security of money deposited in banks. The survey found 11% said they were not that confident their money is safe and another 4% said they weren't sure.
"The American people can rest comfortably knowing that their FDIC-insured deposits are 100% safe," FDIC Chairman Sheila Bair said in a statement. "In fact, there's no safer place in the world for their checking, savings or retirement money."
Hope for a Resolution
There is hope that the funds will be recovered once the government sells IndyMac, but the timing and outlook is uncertain. The FDIC is working to close a deal by year-end, but has had trouble finding suitors in the risk-averse market. It finally opened the doors late last month for non-bank institutions to bid.
But the FDIC is also making the process more difficult by pushing to sell the bank as a whole entity, rather than splitting up assets in a good-bank/bad-bank structure. The latter type of deal would probably get done faster, but the FDIC is placing a priority on its own losses, saying it stands to lose as much as $8.9 billion on IndyMac's collapse.
Depositors are not going to get anything further until we can sell these assets and the FDIC has to recoup 50% of its expenditure first," says spokesman David Barr. "We are bottom-line driven so we have to take the bid that makes the most sense for the insurance fund."
There is also the possibility of Congress enacting an amendment to make the new $250,000 insurance cap retroactive to include IndyMac, something the FDIC does not have the power to do. William Isaac, former FDIC chairman under President Ronald Regan, and a managing director of consulting group LECG, says there is a "compelling case" for such a move.
"At some point, though, you have to draw a line," he notes. "Are you going to go back a year? Two years? There's always going to be somebody who complains that the rule changed after my bank failed and that they should get the benefit of the new rules."
Marshall and Quittel are cautiously optimistic about the government extending a helping hand, while feeling gypped and jaded over their experience.
"I work very hard; I have a mother with Alzheimer's, and you have no idea what it took me to make that money while taking care of her," says Quittel. "You just can't even imagine how hard I worked and to have this money disappear through no fault of my own. I went to bed for a week, and couldn't even think about it."
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