At least five pathfinding banks have decided to try their hands at creating their own strategic plans for complying with the Community Reinvestment Act.
Such institutions can make their own rules instead of having to fit the standard CRA exam.
So far, three institutions have submitted plans to regulators. First National Bank South Dakota in Yankton has sent its proposal to the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. Valley American Bank and Trust Co., South Bend, Ind., and Swiss Avenue State Bank, Dallas, have strategic plans pending with the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
At least two other banks - Chicago's Korea First Bank and Park National Bank, Newark, Ohio - are completing drafts and plan to submit them to regulators shortly.
Many bankers are eager to see how these pioneers fare before trying to customize CRA compliance for themselves.
"We're the guinea pigs," said Stephanie Tamisiea, First National's CRA coordinator. The bank is a $205 million-asset unit of First National Nebraska Inc.
"We felt that it would be easier on us to submit a strategic plan over five years," she said. "We thought it would be more beneficial to let us determine what our own goals would be."
That isn't possible in a regular CRA exam.
Under rules that took effect Jan. 1 for banks with less than $250 million of assets, banks must assess their communities and determine how best to serve them in terms of lending, investment, and services.
But bankers have complained that the new exam rules, released last April, are still too subjective and involve too much guesswork. The strategic plan option offers banks a chance to fashion their own CRA exams.
However, the plans must be put out for public comment and gain government approval. There is an escape hatch: If a bank decides it is not meeting its goals, it can give up on the plan and choose to undergo a regular CRA exam.
Large banks aren't required to be examined under the new CRA rules until July 1997, but they can choose an earlier exam.
Once a bank has adopted an approved strategic plan, it will be publicly available. That should affect the shape of future strategic plans, according to Timothy R. Burniston, deputy assistant director for policy at the Office of Thrift Supervision.
"We've gotten the impression that no one really wanted to be the first," he said. "They want to see other plans that have been approved and use them as a guideline for what they may do."
Valley American Bank decided on a strategic plan, compliance officer Jodi Yarnell said, because "we had been in hot water before and didn't want to get back there." The $750 million-asset bank received a "needs-to- improve" rating in 1992, but this was upgraded to "satisfactory" two years later.
"We feel we're the best judges of what we need to do," Ms. Yarnell said. "So we presented our plan, and if the regulators agree, we're set."
Valley American focused its plan on lending because regulators had indicated they would do the same in exams. For example, the bank aims to make 20% of the housing loans in its market, which includes several low- and moderate-income areas with heavy minority populations.
Park National and Korea First are trying strategic plans for a different reason. Both have branches in high-rise downtown office buildings, which tends to limit walk-in traffic and makes it harder to keep in touch with the community.
William T. McConnell, president of $800 million-asset Park National, said two branches, in downtown Cincinnati and Columbus, Ohio, could threaten its "outstanding" CRA rating. The branches' sole purpose, he said, is to make small commercial loans, and he hopes the strategic plan will protect the bank from being penalized for a narrow focus.
"There could be some danger that regulators would say that we are not serving the entire community," Mr. McConnell said. "We wanted to be proactive and show them what we are trying to do."
That's the idea of strategic plans, according to Bobbie Jean Norris, fair-lending chief in the FDIC's division of compliance and consumer affairs. They don't let banks shirk community responsibilities, she said, but give them the chance to justify their actions to regulators and community groups.
Mr. McConnell said submitting the plan for public comment will be unnerving. He said his bank's plan would focus on its efforts to help minority businesses in downtown Cincinnati and Columbus. But he added that, if the plan gets too much scrutiny from community groups, it may be scrapped altogether.
Korea First, a $300 million-asset branch of the Seoul-based bank, also has had trouble reaching its surrounding community, said Kevin T. Kane, a Chicago-based consultant at Professional Bank Services who is writing the bank's plan. In addition, its services are geared specifically to the Asian community.
The bank got a "satisfactory" rating on its last exam, and Mr. Kane said its narrow focus has made CRA compliance a struggle.
He added that regulators have rarely been lenient.
"Previously, if you didn't have the (loan) numbers, they didn't go looking for explanations," Mr. Kane said. "This option lets banks that are unique, ones to which the cookie-cutter approach to CRA doesn't apply, be successful."
Korea First officials said they would not comment on their plan until it is submitted to the FDIC.
Managers at $135 million-asset Swiss Avenue State Bank were waiting for FDIC approval before discussing their plan.
First National Bank South Dakota's situation is quite different from those of Park National and Korea First. First National's plan focuses on public education, Ms. Tamisiea said.
The bank's internal CRA committee found no low- or moderate-income areas in Yankton, and only one within three counties of it, meaning few such loans are made. Thus the bank, which has a "satisfactory" rating, will hold consumer seminars with topics including how to handle a checking account and how to spot bad checks.
Industry observers said that, while some banks would follow the lead of First National, Korea First, and Park National, others would remain reluctant. It may take a lower exam rating - downgraded because of the new emphasis on lending performance over paper trails - to make banks seriously consider crafting their own plans.