They wanted reassurance. They wanted information. They wanted exemptions from Gov. Harry Hughes' limit of $1,000 withdrawals. Mostly, they wanted their cash. But what they wanted was in short supply, and their frustration at the privately insured savings and loan associations was showing.
"I started to panic," said Maribeth Stahl of Laurel. She is scheduled to go to settlement May 29 on a condominium in College Park -- her first home of her own, and the money for her $3,000 down payment is in Chevy Chase Savings and Loan. "I just called all my family and said, 'Can you give me $1,000?' It's embarrassing begging for money. I feel like a jerk."
Their needs ranged from critical to something less than that -- from paying bills and meeting payrolls to taking vacations or making investments.
"I have $30,000 from the proceeds of a house sale that was supposed to go into buying stock," complained Suzanne Thevenet as she waited in line outside the Friendship Heights Branch of Chevy Chase Savings and Loan. She deposited the money less than two weeks ago, she said, "and the ironic thing is, I only did it because it was more convenient than mailing it to New York" to a money market mutual fund.
"Make sure you say we're not going to vote for the governor anymore," said Donna Comarow, waiting outside another branch of Chevy Chase in hope of withdrawing money set aside for a trip to Scandinavia. "I wrote him this morning and said, 'Thanks a lot for ruining my vacation.' "
All across Maryland yesterday, baffled customers of the state's 102 privately insured savings and loan associations lined up at tellers' windows and tied up switchboards as they tried to cope with the governor's order that set a ceiling of $1,000 a month per account on withdrawals.
Confusion abounded, mostly because the S&Ls appeared to have been caught by surprise and were not prepared to deal with the avalanche of anxious inquiries. But there was little sign of any widespread lack of public confidence in the thrift institutions themselves, in contrast to the weekend run on Old Court Savings and Loan in Baltimore that prompted Hughes to act.
Officials of the S&Ls and of businesses that deal with them regularly, such as real estate agencies, said a continuation of the account limit for more than a week could lead to serious economic disruption. But most of the customers interviewed yesterday seemed frustrated mainly by their inability to get at cash they had counted on spending and anxious about the fate of important checks they wrote before Hughes' order took effect at 4:47 p.m. Tuesday.
Most seriously affected were businesses that run their cash flow through the privately insured institutions and found their funds blocked at least until after the special session of the Maryland legislature scheduled for tomorrow.
"Gov. Hughes owns my business for zero dollars, and I don't like it," said Frank Tuttle, who owns an insurance brokerage in Towson. He said that despite the problems at Old Court and fears of a run on the privately insured S&Ls, he had such confidence in his own savings and loan, Municipal, that "I made a very large deposit there on Monday." Most of the money was blocked by Hughes' order the next day.
"I can't make my payroll, I can't pay my taxes and I can't pay my vendors. For all practical purposes, I'm out of business," Tuttle said.
"We're all very concerned," said Dale L. Ross, president of the Montgomery County Board of Realtors. "It's the people trying to settle on a house who can't get the down payments out. There's also a problem with brokers' escrow accounts that might be in there, and in property management you have security deposits. Right now there's more of a state of concern than a crisis, but everybody is waiting to see where we'll be a week from today."
Officials of several S&Ls said they were unable to answer all their customers' questions because they were still waiting for details on the scope of Hughes' order. One customer was told to "watch the news on TV. That's how we're learning about this."
Unable to get answers from frazzled employes of the thrifts, hundreds turned to state legislators for help and information. "I was on the phone all day," said state Sen. Leo Green (D-Prince George's) "They just really are concerned."
"People, at least in this area, understand the need for the $1,000 limit," said state Sen. Laurence Levitan (D-Montgomery), "but they all say there ought to be special exceptions for various situations -- a businessman whose payroll is tied up, an individual buying a home. The question is, who is going to make the determination" as to what funds should be exempted.
Ironically, the problems facing the S&Ls are largely a result of changes in customer behavior and money-management patterns that the institutions encouraged. A decade ago, money deposited in S&Ls was usually held for a long term, and customers did not rely on it for day-to-day outlays. With the onset of checking accounts and money-market accounts offering instant liquidity, customers grew used to the idea that they could have access to funds in S&Ls just as they did to funds in commercial banks.
It is too early to tell whether the estimated 1 million depositors in the affected S&Ls would shift their accounts once the legislature acts. But a young woman who works for Chevy Chase Savings and Loan said she was glad she was paid yesterday instead of Tuesday because "I would just have gone downstairs and deposited it. Now I can put it somewhere else."