A prominent D.C. banker shared a provocative thought recently in suggesting that full interstate banking is the answer to the current savings and loan crisis in Maryland.
The suggestion may not be as farfetched as it seems at first, because Maryland, after all, has turned to out-of-state banks to help solve the S&L crisis that began last spring when serious management and financial problems were uncovered at some Maryland thrifts.
The state is negotiating with big out-of-state banks to take over financially weak state-insured S&Ls, but it has not opened the door fully to national interstate banking.
But that's precisely what Luther H. Hodges Jr., the chairman of Washington Bancorp, is suggesting as the ultimate solution.
The irony in Hodges making such a suggestion, of course, is that the D.C. Bankers Association is pushing for approval of an interstate banking bill for the District. Although Hodges supports regional interstate banking for now, he said he assumes that "local or national events will result in a nationwide trigger or perhaps an even more specific effort to accommodate certain money-center institutions who want to do business here."
The main point of Hodges' advocacy of full interstate banking, however, is that a natural evolution in the financial services industry will produce mergers of banks and thrifts. "I don't think in the long run there will be two separate industries," he said.
If that evolutionary process had been far enough along, he added, Maryland would be better off taking advantage of full interstate banking rather than resorting to a piecemeal approach in resolving the S&L crisis.
"Full interstate banking, along with the obvious need for consolidation in the thrift and commercial banking businesses, is the answer to the current savings and loan crisis in Maryland," Hodges asserted in a recent address on the subject.
Ending the crisis in Maryland is only the beginning of the scenario sketched by Hodges, however. Consolidation, as Hodges envisions it, would mean a single banking structure incorporating commercial banks and savings and loan associations.
Although acknowledging that relatively large thrift institutions operate in the Washington area, Hodges said they are "only part of the financial structure that we need. We must have large, sound commercial banks."
If the financial structure Hodges advocates were in place today, Maryland could resolve the state's S&L crisis much quicker through interstate mergers, Hodges continued.
As it is, only a few out-of-state banks big enough to pay the high premiums being sought to take over Maryland-insured S&Ls have expressed interest in doing business in the state. Maryland officials have tried to get regional banks and S&Ls to take over ailing thrifts and some that haven't yet qualified for federal deposit insurance. But "it's interesting to note that no regional thrift or bank has come forward to take over those institutions," observed the chief executive officer of a Washington-area S&L.
"We all need to be realistic and recognize that it is in everyone's interest to solve weaknesses in our financial system equitably," Hodges noted. "The solution, in part, lies in further consolidation -- not only among thrifts themselves, but also in the future, between banks and thrifts as well. In other words, we must set aside parochial interests and allow combinations that build a strong, safe and sound banking structure for our region."
To be sure, Hodges' primary interest lies in strengthening the financial services industry in this region. His proposal for consolidating the banking and thrift groups is directed toward federal lawmakers and regulators, however.
He not only advocates applying the same regulatory, accounting and capital requirements to banks and thrifts, but believes a proposal by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to merge the FDIC and the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. "is quite sound."
Hodges concedes that a merger of the two deposit insurance agencies is not the answer to all of the problems in the thrift industry, but maintains it is "one of the answers to the growing problem associated with deposit insurance. Commercial bankers will resist this proposed merger, for few can logically conclude that one should pay to support a lifelong competitor."
The evolution, which Hodges believes is inevitable, will apparently come too late to help Maryland put an end to the S&L crisis.