Once again, the District's bankers have taken the conservative route in an attempt to overturn barriers that prevent them from expanding in their natural market.
By approving another resolution last week calling for a test of banking across state lines in metropolitan Washington, the D.C. Bankers Association was saying, in effect, that it isn't yet ready to take a bold step toward knocking down artificial barriers to interstate banking.
Although sentiment appears to be building among federal regulators and some members of Congress for changes in interstate banking laws, there is no guarantee that everyone will stand in place and wait for legislative changes to be made. Regional and national competitors are accelerating their use of loopholes to stake out positions in the District and elsewhere in the region.
But true to their conservative bent, D.C. bankers prefer to wait for Congress and regulators to heed their appeals for relief.
An expression of support for further deregulation seems to be meaningless. The resolution expressing support to bankers associations in Virginia and Maryland and the D.C. City Council, "with the thought" that those jurisdictions "would be a test area for interstate banking" offers no real hope for immediate change either.
If breaking the bonds that restrict them to banking in the narrow confines of the District is what D.C. bankers want, then they ought to take their cue from some of their competitors.
In fact, they ought to go them one better. Instead of expressing support for interstate banking as a test for the Washington market, D.C. bankers ought to take the initiative by calling for their counterparts in Maryland and Virginia and regulators in those states to join them in a banking summit. The aim of such a summit ought to be approval of a reciprocity agreement that would permit District, Maryland and Virginia banks to branch anywhere in those jurisdictions.
Persuading state officials to embrace reciprocity would obviate the need for congressional approval for limited interstate banking. What's more, New England states already have established a precedent by moving toward reciprocity.
It's a natural. The District and substantial areas of the two adjacent states share a common market, one that is recognized as such by most other businesses in the region. Besides, major banks in the three jurisdictions have already extended their reach into each other's territories by opening loan production offices in the District, Richmond and Baltimore.
And as one local banker points out, the fear of competition from dominant banks would hardly be a factor because most of the larger banks in the region are comparable in size and assets.
Meanwhile, the more aggressive institutions have managed to come up with ingenious schemes to make the ban on interstate banking moot. To insist on maintaining the ban in the face of radical changes in the marketplace is one big charade, and those who naively play the game are waiting to be overrun by the competition.
And the competition locally is as aggressive as that which District bankers fear from national financial institutions.
Consider Perpetual American Federal Savings Bank of McLean. The former District-based S&L, armed with new powers contained in legislation approved last year, is expected to become a major competitor to traditional commercial banks. Recently, Perpetual American headed a consortium of S&Ls that beat their commercial bank counterparts to the mark with a $125 million commercial loan to Allegheny Beverage Corp. of Baltimore.
Already authorized to branch anywhere in the District as well as in Maryland and Virginia by virtue of two acquisitions within the past year, Perpetual American is close to reaching a merger agreement with Interstate Federal Savings and Loan Association, the District's third largest.
Consider Exhibit II. Suburban Bank of Bethesda has received permission from the Maryland banking commissioner to apply for a national charter for a retail banking affiliate in the District. Although the Comptroller of the Currency has placed a moratorium on approving further applications for this type of facility, sometimes called a nonbank bank or near bank (they are prohibited from accepting commercial deposits), Suburban will file an application for a charter anyway.
You can bet the savings account that other institutions will seek national charters for nonbank banks in the District when the moratorium expires at the end of the year.
No matter. "Whether we want to realize it or not, interstate banking is already here," Senate Banking Committee Chairman Jake Garn told D.C. bankers at their annual meeting last week.