A meeting of 250 bankers from 110 of the nation's largest banks that takes place today through Saturday underscores a marketplace reality that may not be apparent to our representatives a few miles away on Capital Hill:
There are two distinct banking industries with separate agendas, and they have about as much chance of a mind meld as polished pundit William F. Buckley Jr. and radio shockschlocker Howard Stern.
As long as Congress continues to treat national and community banks as a monolith, the modernization of our Stone Age commercial banking system will proceed about as smoothly as our cafeteria line in Somalia, with small bankers waging guerrilla warfare against the legislative initiatives of big banks and vice versa.
The danger in all of this is twofold: First, improvements needed by the big players may not be in place in time to prevent the next banking crisis.
Second, changes that adversely affect small banks and force them to merge with bigger ones might be undermining the economic foundation of rural communities and small businesses.
The big bankers meeting here today are members of the reconstituted Reserve City Bankers Association, which recently merged with the Association of Bank Holding Companies to form what some people are calling the Anti-IBAA.
The IBAA, of course, is the Independent Bankers Association of America, an organization more like a church than a trade group in that it has unshakable doctrines as opposed to an agenda. "Thou shalt not muck around with federal deposit insurance" is the group's first commandment.
Many of these big banks are dissatisfied with the lobbying efforts of the industry's biggest trade group, the American Bankers Association, which cannot promote their causes to ardently because it also represents several thousand small banks. So the ABA, like Congress, tries to address an industrywide agenda.
"The ABA's balancing act between big banks and small banks has cost them in terms of effectiveness," I was told by the Lee Hoskins, vice chairman of Huntington Bancshares, Columbus, Ohio, who intends to be at the Reserve City meeting to size up its legislative agenda.
Mr. Hoskins and other ranking officers of the banking company have begun lobbying Congress on their own. And though they are not now prepared to drop out of the ABA like the Bank of Boston did, Mr. Hoskins plans to revisit the issue.
When I told Ed Yingling, the ABA's lobbyist, what I was writing about this week he simply replied that I was "dead wrong."
The Reserve City merger with the bank holding company group was, he said, merely a reaction by big banks to having too many trade associations.
"We work closely with Reserve City, and in the ABA we have virtually no divisions," he told me.
I was skeptical, of course, as per my job description as journalist, and he amended that statement to say it was natural for a big association to have some internal differences.
"But compared to any other industry we have very little in the way of division," he said.
Two Sets of Rules
One approach Congress might consider is a separate set of regulations for small banks. This isn't a new idea. The Bush Task Force proposal that was written during the Reagan years by a work group headed by then-Vice President George Bush, actually proposed a separate regulatory agency for community banks.
We don't need another regulator, but there might be room for small-bank exemptions in more laws. And perhaps congress should consider a new type of bank charter for community banks that would allow them to stay competitive and meet local needs in a world increasingly dominated by megaplayers.