A $470 million-asset bank in Myrtle Beach, S.C., took advantage of the new federal interstate branching law on July 1 - the very day it went into effect in that state.

Anchor Bank said it would merge its $67 million-asset North Carolina subsidiary - acquired three years ago - into its South Carolina operations, thus eliminating a separate charter, a board of directors, and some back office duplication.

"This will make the inside of our bank much more fluid," said Tommy E. Looper, chief financial officer of Anchor Bank. "We don't expect to cut any staff, but will really just be getting rid of the back office headache stuff."

But Anchor Bank's swiftness is an exception to the norm in the interstate branching arena.

Though the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act currently is in effect in exactly half the states, few banks have used the law to expand or consolidate.

"At this stage, we weren't looking for a land rush," said Ellen Lamb, spokeswoman for the Conference of State Bank Supervisors. "There are those out there who expected to see a big rush, but this (around a dozen) is about what we expected."

Riegle-Neal, with state variations, allows banks to branch into other states by starting new branches, or by buying them from existing banks. Previously, most states allowed banks to expand out-of-state only by buying a whole bank through a holding company.

Plus, banks that already have subsidiaries in different states are now able to combine those operations under one charter.

The interstate branching provision of the federal law automatically goes into effect June 1, 1997, unless a state chooses to opt in early or opt out entirely. So far, 38 states have opted in early or by the trigger date. Only Texas has opted out.

Ms. Lamb suggested that banks are hesitating at the moment, particularly from consolidating multi-state operations, because of the organizational ramifications of such a decision. Consolidation means personnel is affected, in terms of both layoffs and realignments, she said. Plus, the existence of a separate board of directors has to be reconsidered.

Details, even as minor as lease obligations for certain offices, can delay a decision to consolidate, she added. "There are a lot of management decisions that go into it," Ms. Lamb said.

Aubrey B. Patterson Jr., chief executive of $3.5 billion-asset Bank of Mississippi, Tupelo, said he believes most of the banks that would benefit from the law are likely still in the planning stages of such a move.

An argument also can be made for retaining separate charters in different states, namely for marketing reasons involving a bank's local image, he said. A separate charter and a local board suggest a greater commitment to a given community.

"There are those who suggest that one charter per state is a pretty good investment, but pure efficiency says you want to go on and take advantage of the law," he said. "In the long-term, I think we'll see people moving almost exclusively in that direction."

Mr. Patterson's company is weighing the pros and cons of consolidating. It has an $800 million-asset bank, Volunteer Bank, in neighboring Tennessee that it could merge into its Mississippi holdings next spring, when the law goes into effect in the two states.

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