Go into some of the nation's largest thrifts these days, and you'll find that the selection of investment products rivals many banks'.
Unless you're in the market for a savings bond.
In a holdover from the days when investing money at a thrift meant getting a passbook account or buying a certificate of deposit, some of the largest savings institutions - including Washington Mutual Inc., Golden State Bancorp Inc., and Golden West Financial Corp. - still do not offer the small-denomination government securities.
Some observers say it goes back to thrift institutions' original mandate to sell certificates of deposit. Executives felt savings bonds would compete, they say.
Indeed, $7 billion-asset Washington Federal Savings and Loan, in Seattle, still says that's a good reason not to sell the bonds.
"Why promote a product that competes with our own?" said Guy C. Pinkerton, the thrift's chairman. The same goes for investment products such as annuities or mutual funds, he said - "You'd be robbing your own customer base."
But for Scott A. Kisting, the president of retail and commercial banking at Golden State's California Federal Bank subsidiary, the question is, Why not sell bonds?
"I just assumed that we did, since I just arrived from a bank," he said. The former head of retail banking at Norwest Corp. joined $61 billion-asset California Federal in 1998 with the mission of making the thrift more like a bank in its revenues and products.
Mr. Kisting raised the savings bond question last month when visiting branches from northern Nevada to East Los Angeles for customer appreciation days.
Branch managers told him that California Federal had talked several years ago about offering savings bonds, but decided not to offer them because the branches were not seeing much demand.
Mr. Kisting said in an interview this month that California Federal probably will not become a sales agent for the government, but instead will take the half step of providing order forms for the bonds at its branches.
Helping a customer fill out the form will create an opportunity to talk about other investment opportunities, he said. "Everything you do for the customer earns you the right to do a number of other things."
Congress designated savings institutions as sales agents for bonds back in 1936, and no regulation keeps them from offering the product. But calls to some thrifts and inquiries at several branches in the San Francisco Bay Area found a lingering sense that savings bonds are for banks.
"We do not sell savings bonds, because we are a savings institution - you have to go to a commercial bank, like Wells Fargo or Bank of America," said an assistant branch manager at a Washington Mutual branch in San Francisco, who asked not to be named.
Alan Gulick, a Wamu spokes-man, said: "The customer demand has not been there for us, and we focus on offering products and services that meet our customer needs. However, if someone visits one of our branches and wants to redeem their bond, of course we'll do that for them."
Selling the bonds will probably not raise much revenue in itself. The Treasury Department's Bureau of Public Debt pays no more than 85 cents per order, which is not much next to the fees for products like mutual funds and insurance. And during the bull market, of course, buyers were not exactly lining up.
But savings bonds still have an almost ceremonial importance for small investors. Long before mutual funds became known as a sound way to save for a child's future, legions of doting grandparents, aunts, and uncles bought savings bonds from the U.S. government, typically at half their face value, as an investment that would mature in eight to 18 years - just like the child.
"We see big spikes in sales around the holidays," said Peter Hollenbach, a spokesman for the Bureau of Public Debt. (Individual investors, acting through depository institutions or going directly to the government, buy half of the roughly $5 billion of savings bonds sold every year. Corporate payroll savings plans buy the other half through automatic deductions from wages.)
In 1993, government tinkering brought an end to the use of fixed rates of maturity - say, 10 years for a Series EE bond issued in 1985. But people still like the idea of a gift that promised the recipient at least twice as much money as the giver paid for it.
Sovereign Bancorp of Wyomissing, Pa., is one thrift that's well aware of the events people associate with savings bonds.
It entered New England by buying about 300 branches from FleetBoston Financial Corp. on June 19, 2000. So this year it offered to give a $100 savings bond to babies born on June 19 in any New England community it serves.
"There's a common cultural and emotional appeal with savings bonds - people associate them with birthdays and young people," said Charles M. Begley Jr., the thrift's managing director of community banking in New England.
He said the company handles savings bonds "as a matter of accommodation to customers" rather than to make money. Demand has never been big enough to threaten deposit-taking services, he said.
Other major thrifts that sell savings bonds include Dime, the New York company that Washington Mutual is acquiring. Being a bond agent is just one more way to provide a service to customers, the thrifts say.
The legwork involved has eased considerably over the years. Selling a bond once meant issuing it directly to the customer, and a branch employee had to type the customer's name on the certificate.
The Bureau of Public Debt did some streamlining in the early 1990s, so now sales agents just process forms filled out by the customer. These go on to one of the five Federal Reserve banks that accept the orders, with two of these banks taking care of mailing the certificates to the recipient.
A bank or thrift that sells a bond gets 85 cents per electronic order and 50 cents per paper order. For cashing a bond, banks and thrifts get 30 cents for each bond sent in separately from other checks, nothing for those that are combined. The bureau has about 12,000 agents that sell, redeem, or both, a number that has stayed stable over the years, the bureau's Mr. Hollenbach said.
Given those fees, it is not surprising that California Federal, for one, wants to confine itself to giving customers the form and some help filling it out. "It's more efficient for the customer to send it in directly," Mr. Kisting said.