Add federal regulators to the list of those who have contributed to the delay in resolving Maryland's savings and loan crisis.
State officials are hopeful of completing a deal, perhaps within the next few days, in which Mellon Bank of Pittsburgh will buy financially troubled Community Savings and Loan of Bethesda. Transferring ownership of Community would further reduce Maryland's liability as the insurer of deposits at many shaky S&Ls.
Maryland has little choice but to work out a deal with Mellon, notwithstanding reservations among some members of the General Assembly. Mellon is the only game in town at the moment. Only one other prospective buyer -- Meritor Savings Bank of Arlington -- has indicated interest in acquiring Community. And Meritor has been stymied by regulators' rigid adherence to a questionable policy in effect at the Federal Home Loan Bank Board.
Meritor, of course, is a federal savings bank, and Community is a state-chartered, state-insured S&L. Bank board policy permits federal thrifts to acquire failing federal thrifts across state lines in supervisory mergers, but that policy generally does not extend to the acquisition of state-insured thrifts.
Community might have been sold to Meritor long before now if the bank board had been more flexible in administering that policy. Meritor submitted a proposal to buy Community as early as Dec. 1, long before Mellon expressed interest in acquiring the institution. But a dispute between Meritor and the bank board has all but eliminated it from contention as a prospective buyer.
The bank board hasn't closed the door to Meritor's entry into Maryland. In fact, it is willing to grant an exception, with strings.
"The bank board is willing to let us go into Maryland if we agree to acquire a failing federal S&L in southwest Virginia," explained Carl Modecki, Meritor's president.
The regulatory equivalent of "You scratch my back; I'll scratch yours" is not without precedent. The bank board has made the acquisition of a failing thrift a condition for approving the purchase of another troubled thrift in the past.
"We're willing to do the other deal if we can get some indemnification," Modecki said of the bank board's attempt to relieve itself of a sick Virginia S&L. But Modecki contends that the bank board owes Meritor at least one favor. "We have done [the bank board] three favors," he said. "We took over failing S&Ls in Florida, Northern Virginia and the District of Columbia."
Meritor, which is a subsidiary of Meritor Financial Group, a national financial services company based in Philadelphia, was formed last year when another subsidiary bought Capital City Federal Savings and Loan of the District and merged it with Northern Virginia Savings and Loan Association.
Now, Meritor is saying to the bank board, "You owe us one."
Neither the bank board nor its insurance arm, the Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp., seems impressed.
The same policy that blocked Meritor's effort to expand into Maryland remains a stumbling block to a New Jersey savings bank that signed an agreement last month to take over another Maryland thrift.
The Maryland Deposit Insurance Fund and Carteret Savings Bank of Morristown, N.J., announced in February that Carteret had agreed to a merger with Admiral-Builders Savings and Loan Association of Parkville, Md. The transaction is yet to be approved by the bank board, however.
"You have to take a failing FSLIC association in another state" to win approval for a merger with Admiral-Builders, said Carteret's vice chairman, Robert D. Pierson. But there were no failing FSLIC associations available when Carteret initiated talks in Maryland, according to Pierson. Carteret has since agreed to take over a failing FSLIC-insured thrift, which it declines to identify, but officials at the New Jersey firm aren't overjoyed with the bank board's pace in approving a deal.
"I would hope that the speed at which we see the commercial banks taking over thrifts could be matched by the bank board," Pierson noted.
If Mellon can strike a deal that is satisfactory to Maryland legislators, it, like Chase Manhattan, should gain quick regulatory approval to purchase a troubled Maryland thrift.
At the height of the state's S&L crisis, some members of the General Assembly fumed over the prospect of big out-of-state banks buying troubled savings and loans.
"As soon as there is blood in the water, there's all sorts of sharks around," grumbled one delegate. An irate colleague accused Chase of wanting to "come in here and skim the cream off the top."
Even sharks can be helpful. If bank regulators had responded to acquisition proposals with the same myopic rigidity as their counterparts who regulate federal thrifts, Maryland might have had a more difficult situation on its hands by now.