While experts disagree over the severity of the nation's current savings industry crisis, they disagree even more over what measures, if any, should be taken to end it.
The current policy of the federal agencies that insure savings deposits is to continue the traditional practice of merging failing institutions into healthy ones while waiting for Congress to enact laws that would give savings and loan associations and mutual savings banks some additional powers to ward off future hard times.
The Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. has been quietly shopping around for potential buyers or merger partners. As part of that program, the agency has opened wider the door leading to interstate mergers by inviting associations to bid on failing institutions outside their states.
The merger route, said Federal Home Loan Bank Board Chairman Richard T. Pratt, "preserves the (FSLIC) fund, and we think strengthens the industry." What's more said Pratt, whose agency regulates federally chartered S&Ls, "the possibility of having interstate mergers causes a much more competitive consideration on these supervisory mergers than would otherwise exist."
In essence, the practice of permitting large out-of-state competitors to bid on failing institutions is designed to reduce the amount of financial assistance required from the FSLIC in mergers organized by regulators to prevent failure by a weak S&L.
In recent years the bank board also has implemented several policies that are designed to give S&Ls more flexibility and improve their profitability -- such as authorizing adjustable-rate mortgage loans and investing in the futures markets.
Still, there are critics who insist the government is not doing enough in the short term to help thrifts. They propose solutions ranging from government bailout to total deregulation.
The proponents of bailout believe that it was the government that put savings institutions in their present predicament by requiring S&Ls to lend out 82 percent of their primarily short-term funds in housing related instruments, mostly 30-year mortgages. Mutual savings banks must put 72 percent of their assets into housing to reap maximum tax advantage. Therefore, the government has a duty to get them out, these critics state. Also they fear the government could run out of suitable merger partners.
New York State Superintendent of Banks Muriel Siebert and Saul B. Klaman, president of the National Association of Mutual Savings Banks, are among those who support the idea of "mortgage warehousing" to pump more money into the industry. Under such a plan, low-yield mortgages would be exchanged for higher-yielding federal government or agency obligations and eventually repurchased by their owners out of increased earnings from the exchange.
"We could have done this for no more money than it will cost the Treasury on All Savers certificates recently permitted in the 1981 tax law , about $5 billion in lost revenue. That would support purchases of $100 billion in mortgages," said Klaman. But warehousing smacks of bailout, which the Reagan administration has promised not to do.
At the other end of the spectrum are the proponents of total deregulation. Chief among them are the most agressive executives of the large S&Ls and Treasury Secretary Donald Regan whose philosophy on competition is "the more the merrier."
Regan previously was chairman of No. 1 securities giant Merrill Lynch & Co., which was instrumental in developing the cash management account -- the equivalent of a checking account paying market rates. He has tried as chairman of the Depository Institutions Deregulation Committee (DIDC), a panel of federal regulators with power over financial institution interest rates, to accelerate the 1986 scheduled end to all interest rate ceilings. As such he has become the nemesis of much of the savings industry.
In between these two poles there are many positions on how best to help the savings industry. Some are technical changes in regulation such as changing state prohibitions against counting borrowings as part of net worth. Another suggestion is for FSLIC premiums to be risk related; the most highly leveraged S&Ls would pay the highest premiums.
On the legislative front two major bills are stalled in Congress. One would give short-term and the other long-term assistance.
House Banking Committee Chairman Fernand St. Germain (D-R.I.) seeks enactment of emergency legislation that would provide relief for financially squeezed savings institutions. He has expressed preference for a two-tiered approach in which legislation to address broader problems of financial institutions would be considered later. The House has passed the emergency bill.
Meanwhile, Senate Banking Committee Chairman Jake Garn (R-Utah), weary of "piecemeal" legislation dealing with the problem, favors a more comprehensive bill that would restructure the savings and loans and substantially deregulate all financial institutions.
His bill would allowsavings institutions to expand operations by making commercial loans. The Garn bill, which incorporates several provisions that were contained in a legislative proposal from the bank board, would permit S&Ls and banks to operate mutual funds, including money market funds, and to invest up to 100 percent of their assets in loans secured by non-residential as well as residential property, time and savings deposits of other S&Ls, obligations of state and local governments and commercial paper and corporate debt, and consumer loans.
The emergency bill has the support of Federal Reserve Board Chairman Paul Volcker and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman William Isaac. The broader bill enjoys more industry support, although a consensus on its terms is far from being reached. However, with Congress scheduled to complete the current session shortly, neither bill will be taken up before February. Garn expects any resolution of the controversial interstate branching question will be put off until after the 1982 elections. Meanwhile de facto nationwide banking is becoming a reality through mergers organized by regulatory agencies across state lines as well as through the electronic revolution.
Garn prefers to see a continuation of the old structure in which depository and nondepository institutions pursued separate lines of business. But he concedes there is a "revolution" taking place in the financial services industries.
Bank board estimates show that its legislative proposals, most of which are in the Garn bill, would increase the return on average assets in 1984 by 0.29 percent in a declining interest rate cycle, 0.17 percent in a stable rate environment, and 0.21 percent if rates increase from current levels.
The savings and loan industry had a return on average assets of 0.83 percent in the first half of 1978 and 0.13 percent for all of last year.
Two weeks ago the savings institution task force of the President's Commission on Housing backed the recommendations in this bill and added a few of its own, such as the ability to make direct investments in real estate and to lease equipment. It also suggested that pension funds and life insurance companies be given incentives to invest more in residential mortgages. It endorsed acquisition of thrifts by commercial banks and other firms across state lines. Planners believe these new powers, which will require at least four or five years to become fully effective, will protect thrifts against volatile interest rates.
Meanwhile, said Kenneth Thygerson, vice president of Western Federal S&L in Denver, preoccupation with interest rates rather than earnings has left the savings associations right where the commercial banks want them: totally distracted, fighting federal regulators instead of the competition.
But while S&Ls struggle for survival, the competition for savings and investment dollars has sparked a revolution in the financial services industries. Traditional lines separating depository institutions from other financial segments are rapidly eroding.
Technology, bold maneuvers and innovative concepts have enabled credit card firms, major retailers, insurance companies and brokerage houses to slip through regulatory loopholes and set up extensive financial services networks.
But unlike S&Ls and banks, those other competitors aren't hampered by bans against interstate competition or other regulatory constraints which limit the scope of business by depository institutions.
Larger S&Ls recognized the dramatic changes some time ago and have become more innovative.
"We haven't competed with S&Ls for a long time," said William Sinclair, president of the Metropolitan Washington Savings & Loan League. "We've competed with banks. From now on, we'll be competing with the near-banks."
Many of the so-called near-banks have a decided advantage in their ability to offer an array of traditional financial services as well as other consumer products.
For example, Sears, Roebuck & Co., the nation's biggest retailer, is well on its way to becoming a one-stop mart for practically every conceivable consumer financial service. Through its 858 retail stores and 24 million active credit accounts Sears has accesss to more consumers than any financial institution.
The retailing giant plans to capitalize on that advantage by operating its own money market mutual fund. At the same time, it has announced agreements to purchase Coldwell Banker Co., a major real estate brokerage firm, and Dean Witter Reynolds, the nation's sixth largest brokerage company. Already it owns a large California S&L and giant Allstate Insurance Co.
At the same time, Prudential Insurance Corp. has acquired Bache Group, also a leading brokerage firm. And American Express, with assets of about $20 billion, has broadened its business interests from a worldwide travel and entertainment card network to a merger with Shearson Loeb Rhoades, Inc., another large brokerage firm.
Meanwhile, two traditional competitors -- BankAmerica Corp. and Security Pacific Corp. -- have announced their intention to enter the securities business despite prohibitions contained in the Glass-Steagall Act. Significantly, the concept of banks selling municipal bonds under the same rules as brokers is advocated by Treasury Secretary Regan.Technology as much as any other factor is largely responsible for the revolution in the financial services industries. In fact, regional banks and S&Ls are turning to more sophisticated electronic funds transfer systems to narrow the competitive gap.
Increasingly, banks and S&Ls are adding their automatic teller machine networks to switches, which are regional systems that offer greater convenience to their customers. Six major commercial banks and two large S&Ls in the District, Virginia and Maryland recently agreed to participate in a regional network.
For the time being, regional networks of automatic teller machines (ATMs) enable customers to make cash withdrawals across state lines but are considered forerunners to interstate branching.
What's more, experimental interchanges between regional ATM networks and development of a national system for bank and S&L debit cards are being studied.
One thing has been made clear by developments of the past year. The savings and loan industry can't afford to operate much longer in its regulatory framework and demands for changes are coming from within and outside the industry.
The S&Ls "can't do things as they did in the past," said Robert R. Dince, a professor of finance at the University of Georgia.
"The industry can't survive by continuing to make long-term mortgages at fixed rates," Dince continued. "They have got to become more short-term lenders."
A Washington-based economist whose firm serves frequently as consultant to savings institutions, concurs. "There's no benefit to the housing industry in maintaining a specialized thrift industry," he said. "One thing the thrifts have learned if they haven't learned anything else from this; mortgages have to be priced based on what's happening in the marketplace. They have nothing to do with the costs of deposits."
What will the thrifts of the future be like? First, there will be fewer of them. Estimates range that anywhere from several hundred-- according to John Dalton, a former member of the Federal Home Loan Bank Board-- and several thousand -- according to Thygerson -- will be wiped out through mergers or failures. Andrew S. Carron of Brooking Institution projects there will be a nationwide contraction of about 25 percent; but one third fewer in New York and Chicago.
Second, there will be a great diversity in size and function. There will undoubtedly always be some small "Mom and Pop" thrifts that scorn the new powers and continue to operate in the traditional way. At the other extreme, there will be a few large diversified S&Ls, widely spread geographically, that will offer a full line of services - the Merrill Lynches of the thrift industry, in the words of John Detterick, chairman of Allstate Savings and Loan in Glendale, Calif. There will be low cost producers with high volume, few products and limited distribution, like the discount broker Charles Schwab. And there will be specialist within the industry, deriving their income from fees, along the lines of Goldman Sachs.
Some will become in function, if not in charter, commercial banks. Point Loma Savings and Loan in San Diego, a new thrift that has had spectacular growth, already acts like a bank, investing either in short-term government securities or construction and real estate loans that mature in less than two years. Recently it applied to become a bank.
Others will become mortgage bankers. "We will be the developers' mortgage bankers," said Sinclair. While very large S&Ls may want to engage in domestic and international business lending, small and medium-sized S&Ls can be expected to concentrate on individual consumers. A term favored by planners is "one-stop family finance center," meaning that the savings institution will meet the credit needs of individuals for housing, autos and consumer loans.
The trade associations of the housing industry oppose the restructuring of the thrift industry because they fear it will weaken its ties with housing. Indeed, that is the critical questions. The experience of the All Savers Act, which was intended primarily to assist thrifts and, only secondarily, to help housing, is telling.
The reason most often voiced on Capitol Hill for saving thrift institutions is that they will be needed to finance housing when it again booms. Government and industry officials, while requesting broader powers for savings institutions, swear that the thrift industry will continue to be the primary provider of housing funds because that is where its expertise lies.
Undoubtedly this is true for the majority of thrifts. But a few voices have been heard to say if thrifts can't be saved for housing, then they should be saved without housing. If the government will no longer favor housing by offering thrifts "protection" in the form of an interest rate differential, why should they continue to subject themselves to the boom and bust cycles that typify housing? Shouldn't the burden be shared by various segments of the financial community? In effect this is already happening in the market with companies like Merrill Lynch and pension funds becoming more and more involved with residential real estate.
"The housing industry should not be captive to the wellbeing of the thrift industry or vice versa," said Klaman. "I don't know who is going to be the supplier of funds for housing," said William Popejoy, president of Financial Federation, Inc. of Los Angeles, a holding company for 11 S&Ls. "By default, it will be left to the federal government, which can't even run the Post Office. Why should (a stock S&L) make a home loan to help the community when you could make a loan to a large corporation that has a better return and no market risk of rate change? Some stockholders will buy that argument, but most S&L executives espousing that philsophy will be unemployed.''
He believes what is needed is not an incentive for thrifts, but an incentive for housing that would be provided to all financial institutions in order to assure a continued flow of funds to housing. The administration, which feels that housing in the past decade has consumed more than its share of the economy, is unlikely to agree. While it supports the restructuring bill now in Congress, it is also counting on declining interest rates to mitigate the situation.
Given the dissension within the thrift industry, with its competitors and regulators, the likelihood of passage of meaningful legislation is doubtful, at least in the near future. Even if the crisis does abate with declining interest rates, it is already too late for some thrifts. Yet, for the survivors, new powers will mean a new beginning.