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Yellen, caught between markets and US Congress, tweaks bank safety message

FILE PHOTO: U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen testifies before Senate panel, on Capitol Hill in Washington

By Heather Timmons and David Lawder

WASHINGTON (Reuters) -For the fourth time in a week, U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen took a microphone on Thursday aiming to reassure Americans that the U.S. banking system is safe, each time with a subtle shift in message.

But bankers and Wall Street never heard what they fervently wanted: That the government would guarantee all $19.2 trillion in U.S. bank deposits until the banking crisis that erupted two weeks ago calms down.

Yellen is the face of the U.S. government on the issue, and her public comments have sent markets on a roller coaster ride.

Becoming more explicit each time she has spoken, Yellen has repeatedly said the U.S. will safeguard deposits but has stopped short of a blanket guarantee, which would insure account balances of any size, including those above the current limit of $250,000.

Her comments on Thursday more clearly indicated than previously that further guarantees for uninsured deposits would come in the form of rescues for depositors of individual failing banks where problems threaten to spark runs on other banks.

She told U.S. lawmakers that bank regulators and the Treasury were prepared to make comprehensive deposit guarantees at other banks as they did at failed Silicon Valley Bank and Signature Bank.

"These are tools we could use again, for an institution of any size, if we judge that its failure would pose a contagion risk," she told a U.S. House of Representatives Appropriations subcommittee hearing.

The comments helped lift broad stock indexes. But regional bank shares including those of struggling First Republic Bank continued to slide.

Yellen on Wednesday told a Senate subcommittee that she was not considering a move to circumvent Congress and grant "blanket insurance" on all U.S. bank deposits.

CONGRESS' CLOUT

That's a step that the government and regulators took unilaterally in the 2008 global financial crisis, but the Biden administration would now have to get approval from Congress under 2010 reforms.

Hardline Republicans oppose any increase in the current $250,000 Federal Deposit Insurance Corp limit, making it unlikely that Yellen could hastily arrange such a backstop even if the crisis worsens.

Banks and markets have found Yellen's comments unsettling at times. On March 16, she told a told a Senate hearing that banks had to pose a systemic risk to win a deposit guarantee, a comment interpreted as leaving small community banks to fend for themselves.

But at a bank conference on Tuesday, she said that similar actions to the SVB guarantee "could be warranted if smaller institutions suffer deposit runs," reassuring those institutions.

Yellen's reluctance to endorse a universal backstop has drawn criticism from investors including hedge fund manager Bill Ackman. They argue that a universal guarantee is needed to prevent depositors at small and mid-size banks from fleeing for perceived safety at large banks viewed as "too big to fail."

(Reporting by Heather Timmons and David Lawder; Writing by Heather Timmons; Editing by Paul Simao and Cynthia Osterman)