Knab mrofer. This is what the beltway intelligentsia says a recent speech by Secretary of the Treasury Lloyd Bentsen did for bank reform (i.e., set it back).

In the oration, which was billed as "important" by the secretary's image consultants, he informed bankers that while the administration supported such steps as the adoption of interstate branching to modernize their industry, it would not lend its muscle to the effort just yet.

That this was similar to the support given by the administration to Bosnia's Muslims was not lost on the bankers.

Clear Signal

Mr. Bentsen also said that the administration supported the eventual consolidation of the five federal banking agencies into a simpler entity as long as the new regulator is accountable to the electorate.

This was widely understood to mean that the administration would demand that the Treasury be lord and master of the new agency, as opposed to an independent operation of the type favored by the current chairmen of the House and Senate banking committees.

Mr. Bentsen's seeming reluctance to compromise on this point was lamented as a major setback by those bankers seeking immediate action.

Playing for Field Position

Mr. Bentsen is now being referred to in some circles of disappointment as "The Punter," for putting bank reform on the Clinton administration's back burner just a couple of weeks after an overenthusiastic underling, Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig, announced that the administration had in- tended to tackle the controversial issue this year.

It's an apt nickname for Mr. Bentsen, but not because, as the coiners believe, he is avoiding a tough issue. Mr. Bentsen is not abandoning the playing field; rather, he is employing a strategy to improve the administration's lousy position, deep in its own end zone.

Going for the goal line now would be even more self destructive than the 1991 rush up the middle for bank powers, which resulted in the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act, the longest loss of yardage for banks since the 1930s.

Congress remains anti-bank, which many members wrong-headedly equate with being pro-consumer. Therefore, any favor granted by Congress to the banks will have a steep price, most likely in the form of more allocations of cut-rate credit to favored groups. Second, the administration's banking offense isn't very well-oiled and would be steamrolled if it ran interference for the industry now. President Clinton's bench is the political equivalent of the Washington Redskins.

I'm told that Mr. Ludwig's more optimistic predictions about the pace of bank reforms irritated his bureaucratic betters at Treasury. As a result, they are trying to keep him on a short leash, and he is complaining about it, according to sources. Disagreements like this among teammates is not a formula for legislative victory.

Pray for Hang Time

Then there's the matter of a new administration player who needs some time to get into shape. Lawyer Ricki Tiggert is said to be President Clinton's choice for chairman of the rudderless Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. She'll have to deal with some serious problems there before looking ahead to bank reform.

Even when the administration does begin to play ball with the industry, you have to wonder if they'll give it much of a try. They sound friendly enough toward banks, but they don't act friendly. It's this administration that has pushed for tougher enforcement of the Community Reinvestment Act.

It is this administration that uses inconclusive Home Mortgage Disclosure Act data to shame and browbeat the industry into implementing expensive affirmative action programs for borrowers.

I think Mr. Bentsen did bankers a favor by kicking bank reform high and away. I think you ought to keep your fingers crossed that the punt has a hang time of not less than three years.

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