The industry blasted a government plan to find out whether the 50 largest national banks are living up to Community Reinvestment Act promises.
However, community groups across the country praised the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency for suggesting the survey-and urged the agency to go further.
Spurred by the massive, multiyear CRA pledges banks involved in mergers have been making, the OCC proposed sending large national banks a survey asking roughly a dozen questions about how they are implementing those commitments. The agency's plan was unveiled in September, and comments were due last week.
Though bank participation would be voluntary, "the OCC will use the results of the survey as background information in its examination and policymaking processes," according to the proposal.
But the American Bankers Association said such a survey would be inconsistent with regulatory attempts over the last several years to both reduce the paperwork burden on banks and gear CRA examinations more toward performance and less on process.
"We are astounded," wrote Paul Alan Smith, the ABA's senior federal administrative counsel. "ABA finds the OCC's sudden sharp turn in direction ... alarming and incomprehensible."
The trade group also disputed the OCC's claim that the survey would occur only once. "If this is truly intended to be a one-time-only survey, then it is pointless, as it will capture only some of the banks sought to be surveyed and it will be out-of-date almost as soon as it is completed."
The Bankers Roundtable, which represents the country's biggest banks, said the survey would be inconsistent with the OCC's current policy. The agency does not enforce CRA pledges, but conducts regular exams to monitor overall compliance.
But community groups praised the OCC proposal, saying that regulators need to keep an eye on banks that make sweeping promises as part of their plans to merge with other institutions. For example, as part of their merger, NationsBank and Bank of America said the combined company would spend $350 billion over the next 10 years on community programs across the country.
"We are very concerned that it (Bank of America's plan) is too broad and that it is not possible for a state or city to monitor," wrote Alan Fisher, executive director of the California Reinvestment Committee. "How does anyone in a region ... know what that means?"
Among the OCC's proposed questions: How does the bank set goals or targets for meeting the CRA commitments; how often does the bank monitor its progress toward its goals; how is the bank's tracking system managed and operated?
Mr. Fisher said that the OCC should be asking even more detailed questions. But in a letter to the OCC, Patrick M. Frawley, Bank of America's director of regulatory relations, said the company's community involvement, which extends beyond CRA requirements, would be hampered by the OCC survey.
"It would be disruptive and destructive to the relationship between our banks and the communities they serve for agencies of the federal government to interpose themselves," Mr. Frawley wrote.
The agency received 19 comment letters in response to the proposal. If the OCC decides to proceed, the survey would be taken early next year, an OCC spokeswoman said.