WASHINGTON -- The Federal Reserve Board is indicating that it will oppose the Clinton administration's plan to merge four federal bank regulatory agencies.

Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen told reporters Tuesday that the administration will offer a bill in January proposing a single bank regulator.

"It just makes no sense to have four separate agencies overlapping, often in conflict," Mr. Bentsen said at a press conference. "What you are seeing is something somewhat unprecedented in that federal agencies will be giving up some turf."

The Federal Reserve Board - which loses many of its supervisory functions under the administration's proposal - reacted with a two-sentence statement that appears to oppose the plan.

Monetary Policy Cited

"A hands-on role in banking supervision is essential to carrying out the Federal Reserve's responsibilities for the stability of the financial system and is vital for the effective conduct of monetary policy," the Fed stated.

"While the board recognizes the overlaps in bank supervision that have emerged in recent years, it is essential that any proposal for change preserve the important benefits of the current system."

A Fed spokesman refused to elaborate.

The Clinton administration's bill will closely resemble legislation already introduced by both Democratic and Republican leaders of the House and Senate banking committees.

Independence from Executive

The administration is giving in on the one thing Congress has insisted on: that the single agency be independent of the executive branch.

This wide-ranging consensus puts regulatory consolidation on the fast track. The administration and Congress have agreed as well to try to keep this a single-issue bill.

"I applaud the Treasury Department for its proposal to consolidate the bank regulatory agencies," said House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez. "While I have not seen the plan, it sounds quite promising."

Senate Banking Committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle said: "Now that we have the administration's support, we plan to make this a top priority of the committee."

Lower Regulatory Costs

"Something has a pretty good chance to be enacted in 1994," agreed Edward Yingling, chief lobbyist for the American Bankers Association. "Consolidation could lead to lower regulatory costs for the industry."

If the new Federal Banking Commission becomes a reality, it will revolutionize the way banks and thrifts are regulated. With one agency calling the shots, regulations would be uniform and enforcement would become consistent.

Mr. Bentsen said he thinks a streamlined regulatory system would induce financial institutions to lend more and bring down consumer costs as well.

The Treasury Secretary said the new commission could be up and running within 10 months of the legislation's enactment.

Status Quo for States

The commission would regulate and supervise all banks and thrifts as well as their holding companies. States would continue to be the primary supervisors of state-chartered institutions.

The Fed would continue to conduct monetary policy and would have the right to look at any bank or thrift exam report. The Fed also could conduct examinations of institutions vital to the payment system.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. would insure banks and thrifts and could continue to perform backup exams on institutions deemed a threat to the deposit insurance funds.

The Federal Banking Commission would have five members. A chairman, selected by the president and confirmed by the Senate, would serve a four-year term, roughly in line with the President's.

Bipartisan Members

The President would select two other independent members from different political parties. They would serve staggered five-year terms. The Treasury secretary and the Fed chairman would get the remaining seats.

The FDIC board would be reconfigured as well. The administration's bill would put the Treasury secretary and the Fed chairman on the FDIC board to replace seats that were held by the Comptroller of the Currency and the OTS.

"It would be good for the country," former FDIC chairman L. William Seidman said of regulatory consolidation. "The question is clearly whether the Federal Reserve is going to make this a major cause."

Source of Power

"I can't believe Alan Greenspan wants to be the chairman who sold out the Federal Reserve System," said former Fed general counsel John D. Hawke in predicting the central bank will mount a vigorous campaign against the bill.

Mr. Hawke, now a partner with Arnold & Porter law firm here, said the Fed does not want to cede its regulatory duties, because that's where it gets much of its sway over banks. "Its ability to jawbone banks stems from its regulatory leverage," he said. Without the power to approve bank applications, Mr. Hawke said, the Fed loses the ability to make banks do what it wants.

Mr. Yingling said the ABA's support for the bill hinges on several factors. The bank and thrift deposit insurance funds must be kept separate, he said. Also, the credit union industry's regulator should be folded into the new Federal Banking Commission, he said.

Kenneth A. Guenther, executive vice president at the Independent Bankers Association of America, opposed the administration's position because, he said, it cuts the Fed too far out of the supervision of the system.

"It would weaken the functioning of the nation's central bank, and that's too high a price to pay," said Mr. Guenther, who used to work at the Fed.

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