If you want to know why the drive for financial deregulation has been transferred from a bandwagon to a runaway steamroller, ask Harry Hughes or Richard Celeste.
The governors of Maryland and Ohio are the latest government officials to resort to the worst possible excuse for revising the nation's banking system -- deregulation by disaster.
Ohio Gov. Celeste may not have much choice but to invite out-of-state banks into his state to clean up after the crisis that resulted in the first big bank holiday since the Great Depression. But Gov. Hughes has no good reason to hit the panic button simply because of a vacant factory in Hagerstown.
Over the last few years, many of the traditional restrictions on banking activities have been removed by a variety of tactics. Some regulations have been punctured by loopholes, such as the creation of nonbank banks. More restrictions on financial institutions have been repealed by Congress and state legislatures. Congress has even made deregulation by disaster a national policy.
Federal law now waives the ban on interstate banking when necessary to bail out a failing financial institution. If no other bank in the same state is willing to take over a broken bank, out-of-state institutions are allowed to bid for it.
But just because there's an opportunity to drop the interstate banking barriers when disaster threatens doesn't mean it should always be done.
When residents of Ohio were spooked by the flimsy safety net protecting state-chartered savings and loan associations, the governor had to scramble for a replacement. One of the most obvious solutions was to try to find some big out-of-state institutions to buy Ohio's losers.
At least four big banks eager to expand their franchise are sniffing at the bait -- Citicorp, Chase Manhattan Corp., Chemical New York Corp. and Pittsburgh's Mellon National Corp. It is by no means clear that any of them will bite, because they will have to pay a very high price.
Because of the federal law, out-of-state banks won't be able to branch into Ohio simply by purchasing one broken-down little savings and loan association. The law waives the ban on interstate acquisitions only for institutions with assets of more than $500 million. Ohio will have to merge a bunch of its failed together to make a big enough outfit to qualify for the exemption. The cost of taking over and rehabilitating half-a-billion-dollars worth of hastily merged S&Ls may be more than the right to bank in Ohio is worth.
In contrast, Maryland is offering a bargain basement deal to Citicorp in return for mending a mini-disaster. The governor wants to let the giant New York bank into the state as a reward for turning the abandoned Fairchild aircraft plant in Hagerstown into a credit card processing facility with 1,000 workers. Citicorp would pay between $1 million and $3.75 million for the plant and the exclusive right to be the only full-service out-of-state bank in Maryland.
Calling the loss of the Fairchild operation a mini-crisis is not meant to demean its impact on the workers who lost their livelihood or those who might find work with Citicorp. But the jobs opening envelopes and updating accounts are not going to pay close to what Fairchild paid its skilled production workers. And Citicorp is not the only potential user for the plant; there are others that might move in without requiring the state to give them so much.
Nor should criticism of Hughes' Citicorp deal be interpreted as opposition to interstate banking. There are plenty of good reasons for opening Maryland's borders to interstate banking competition; the argument that it will create jobs isn't one of them.
If the governor and the legislature want interstate banking they ought to make the case on its own merits. The implications for Maryland's consumers and financial system are what's crucial to the decision, not how it plays in Hagerstown.
Ignored in the debate heard so far is what -- if anything -- the entry of Citicorp would mean to Maryland's savings and loan associations. Like Ohio, the state has lots of savings associations that are insured by a private statewide fund rather than the federal government. Like Ohio, Maryland has many state-insured savings associations that are in weak financial condition. Like Ohio, the Maryland Savings Share Insurance Corp. does not have enough reserves to survive the collapse of a very large institution.
The health of the state-insured savings associations is a far more critical problem for Maryland than interstate banking or unemployment. That's the issue the state legislature ought to be debating at length instead of rushing into a decision on the Citicorp deal.
Deregulation without debate is what's gotten the nation's financial system into such a fragile state that panics like the one in Ohio can occur. If Maryland is to draw any conclusions from the Ohio crisis, it should be that the future of the state's financial institutions is the most crucial issue facing state officials.