Free of federal regulatory restrictions, several Maryland savings and loan associations have moved into an aggressive campaign to recapture savings dollars lost to other investment forms.
Those associations, not covered by the federal government's regulation O, which limits passbook interest rates to 5 1/2 percent, have now raised those rates to 7 percent and are offering a variety of services to lure customers back to their windows.
"The was I look at it, the main problem we're addressing is an industry problem," said Alexander Boyle, president of Government Services Savings & Loan Inc. "We're luck to have the flexibility the federal industry does not have."
Accounts at about 135 savings and loan associations in the state are backed by the Maryland Savings-Share Insurance Corp., which insures the state's charter stock savings corporations.
In the Baltimore area, at least a half dozen S&L's have been paying 7 percent on passbook accounts and some smaller ones are effectively paying an even higher interest rate.
In fact, Putty Hill Permanent Building Association, for example, is offering passbook savers 6 1/2 percent and an additional 1 1/2 percent bonus at the end of the year.
Now, Government Services, John Hanson Savings & Loan Association and Chevy Chase Savings & Loan Inc. -- all state-insured and among the largest S&Ls in the District suburbs -- have raised their passbook interest rates to 7 percent.
Without the federal limitations, is a rate war possible? "I would hope that everybody would be prudent about it," said Dennis Berlin, executive vice president of Chevy Chase Savings & Loan. "We want to do this on a fiscally sound, good public policy basis."
But until last week, the Maryland-chartered S&L's apparently were hesitant about advertising their services, particularly smaller thrift institutions in the Baltimore area.
The advertising policy, suggested by the state Division of Building Savings and Loan Associations, the regulatory panel which monitors the performance of the S&L's, was put into effect to deter rate wars and limit discussion of a federal takeover of the state's rate setting role. Only Maryland, Ohio, North Carolina and Massachusetts have a state insurance system for S&L's not chartered by the federal government.
But the ban has been lifted informally, although its effects never really surfaced in metropolitan Washington, savings and loan spokesmen maintained.
Despite the rate flexibility and the competitive advertising reflected in major newspaper advertising campaigns, it is unclear whether the S&L's can begin to cut the flow of consumer dollars into money market funds.
Two years ago, about $2 billion of the public's investment dollars, were tied up in money, market mutual funds. By mid-1970, that figure had ballooned to about $50 billion because of aggressive marketing and interest rates well above S&L institutions everywhere.
The way to cut that dropoff in Maryland is to expand the varieties of services S&L's can offer, officials said. "It's not just the passbook, but a whole group of savings programs that will attract funds away from money market funds," Boyle said, citing short-and long-term certificates of deposit as examples.
David H. Wells Jr., deputy director of the Maryland regulatory agency, said the plans to recapture money in the Washington suburbs and across the state could begin to stem the outflow of savings dollars.
"If they can capture additional savings at that rate, it will turn out to be a very good policy and will turn out to be very profitable," Wells said. Using the example of a suburban Washington S&L with about $60 million in passbook accounts. Wells noted that the one percent increase, from 6 percent to 7 percent, will mean an additional $600,000 in interest rate payments a year for the institution. "They can easily pay that," he said.
S&L spokesman argued that the flow of funds away from their coffers limits consumers in access to their money and also shuts off the S&L industry's ability to finance housing.
Not only is the industry suffering by transfers of savings dollars to money market investments but also it is looking to the eventual advent of interest-bearing checking accounts, another alternative for the general public.
If the Maryland experience can demonstrate that with a push, state institutions can recapture savers' dollars, it could provide added impetus to congressional efforts to virtually deregulate the industry and end interest rate ceilings.