Two proposals, thought to be impractical if not unthinkable as recently as a year ago, are gaining gradual support among several area savings and loan officials.
Both proposals have considerable merit, especially at a time when the industry is forced to retrench in the wake of continuing heavy losses.
The first, which is being proposed by the Metropolitan Washington Savings and Loan League -- the trade group for District S&Ls -- would establish an alliance between all S&Ls in the Washington area. Suburban Maryland and Virginia S&Ls are members of their respective state leagues, although a few are associate members of the Metropolitan Washington League.
While officials from the three jurisdictions have discussed a possible realignment, talks have been only exploratory, say officials of the Metropolitan League.
The merger trend of the past two years has reduced the number of S&Ls in the District from 16 to eight. And with informal merger talks continuing, that number could be reduced even further.
That, however, is only one of several factors that prompted former Metropolitan League president William Sinclair to propose formation of an area-wide organization.
"You'd get a true local league, and the exchange of information and ideas can't help but be beneficial," Sinclair said in a recent interview.
Metropolitan League officials have attempted to sell the concept in terms of an informal alliance instead of a new league. Members of the organization would share costs of seminars, market studies and development of new products, for example.
Although the original focus was on a regional alliance, representatives from the three state league offices have met for a preliminary discussion of the proposal.
"We just met and discussed some things that could be areas of mutual cooperation," a league official commented.
A more ambitious proposal making the rounds is bound to be more controversial. It would, in fact, present a challenge to the ban on interstate mergers and branching.
"There is definitely a move afoot," said an S&L president, "to put together a multibillion-dollar institution with branches in all three jurisdictions."
The plan as outlined is still in the brainstorming stage, according to the same official. Nonetheless, he added, several relatively strong S&Ls have been approached with a proposal calling for the merger of four to six associations.
Several industry officials, when asked about it, endorsed the concept, but denied any knowledge of the proposal.
"I'm surpised something like that hasn't been talked about before now," said one. "In my opinion, that would be an excellent maneuver."
"No one has approached me, but I've dreamed about something like that," declared the president of a large District S&L.
Others aren't as enthusiastic. The president of a Northern Virginia S&L called the proposal a potential "political nightmare."
Nonetheless, branching in all three jurisdictions continues to be a stated goal of several institutions. Market conditions practically dictate a consolidation of some of the region's S&Ls.
The big question is, would federal regulatory authorities bend the rules to allow an interstate merger of three or more local S&Ls? The Federal Home Loan Bank Board has approved interstate mergers but only as a last resort to save failing institutions.
On the other hand, the bank board already has opened the door to interstate mergers in metropolitan Washington.
The board established a precedent earlier this year by approving a merger between Perpetual American Federal Savings and Loan Association, the region's largest, and Washington-Lee Federal of McLean. At the time, Perpetual American maintained its headquarters in the District.
Officials of the two institutions and federal authorities emphasized repeatedly that the merger was voluntary and that Washington-Lee was in no danger of failing.
The bank board has never explained why it made an exception in the case of Perpetual American and Washington-Lee. Perhaps the board was sending a signal to other area S&Ls to propose similar mergers. It might have been saying that metropolitan Washington is a natural market area and should be considered unique.
In any event, the bank board can hardly deny a voluntary merger between other District and suburban S&Ls after blessing the marriage between Perpetual American and Washington-Lee.
At least somebody appears willing to test that theory.