Clarke Woodruff is a self-described "old S&L guy" who looks back fondly on his 40 years at United Savings and Loan Association in Springfield, Ill.

But when Mr. Woodruff merged his 119-year-old thrift earlier this year with another "noble survivor" from across town, Security Federal Savings and Loan Association, he didn't have a second thought about naming the new institution Security Bank.

"We knew we weren't fooling anybody," he said. "But there is a little problem with the name 'savings and loan.'"

That there is. And there's little doubt in the thrift industry that the term, tainted by the scandals of the 1980s, will soon be history.

The national thrift trade group, which meets this week in Boston, even dropped "savings" out of its name earlier this year to become America's Community Bankers.

Will the industry disappear as well?

Many thrift executives, Mr. Woodruff included, are convinced it will not. Even if Congress does away with the federal thrift charter, as appears likely, they contend the former savings and loans will continue to form a distinct segment of the banking business, focusing on mortgage lending in particular and consumers in general.

"We'll continue to offer these funny little services about helping people get houses, buy cars, and have a place to put their money," said Mr. Woodruff, executive vice president of Security Bank, now a $170 million- asset state savings bank.

At $44.5 billion-asset Great Western Bank in Los Angeles, the plans are similar. "We're going to continue to emphasize mortgage lending, because that's what we're good at," said chairman and chief executive James F. Montgomery.

Supporting that upbeat view, Great Western and other major thrifts on the West Coast recently reported strong third-quarter earnings. (See story on page 10.)

"I don't think the nomenclature is all that important," said ACB president Paul Schosberg. "And I don't think ultimately that the charter itself is all that important."

Others aren't so sure. Thrifts now have just 27% of the home mortgage market. Mortgage bankers who sell their loans to Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac dominate the business.

"You don't have the need for a specialized lender that we did in the 1930s," said Lawrence Connell, a prominent former thrift executive and credit union regulator who is now president and CEO of Atlantic Bank, a commercial bank in South Portland, Maine. Thrifts "were a response to a particular time, and this is a different time," he said.

In the 1930s, New Deal lawmakers built a federal savings and loan infrastructure designed to encourage mortgage lending. But S&Ls had existed since 1831. All along, what made them different from banks was that they were owned by depositors and concentrated on real estate lending.

They were so different from banks, in fact, that many savings and loan executives didn't see themselves as connected with the banking industry at all. When he started at Great Western in 1960, Mr. Montgomery said, "My feeling was that I was in the building business more than the banking business."

Thrifts' growth, and the difficulties they faced when interest rates jumped, steadily broke down these distinctions.

When mutuals grew large, they ceased to be the hometown, depositor- controlled institutions they once were. To grow even bigger, they needed to be able to raise money in the stock market.

Great Western, then a state-chartered thrift, was the first S&L to go public, in 1955. Federal regulators drew up rules for mutual-to-stock conversions in 1974, and since then the ranks of mutuals have been shrinking rapidly. At present, only 18% of thrift industry assets are held by mutuals - down from 45% 10 years ago.

"More and more institutions are converting every day," said Mark B. Cohen, a principal with the investment banking firm of Sandler O'Neill and Partners.

Meanwhile, whenever interest rates went up sharply, thrifts - their portfolios dominated by long-term, fixed-rate mortgages - found themselves in trouble. Congress and regulators usually reacted by giving them new powers, many once allowed only to banks.

This process, started in the 1960s, hit top speed in the 1980s, when waves of deregulation - then reregulation - left thrifts answering to most of the same rules as banks.

"From a regulatory standpoint, the differences between banks and thrifts have substantially disappeared in the past 15 years," said Alexandria, Va., thrift consultant Bert Ely. "Fifteen years ago it was pretty easy to characterize what a thrift was. That's no longer true."

C. William Landefeld, president and CEO of $230 million-asset Citizens Savings Bank in Normal, Ill., agreed. "The majority of the public thinks that we're banks now."

All that remains to complete that transition is a merger of the bank and thrift charters.

There are some who would like to see this happen right away. "I personally am not in favor of holding up barriers to protect thrifts," said Edward G. Harshfield, president and CEO of California Federal Bank, a $14 billion-asset thrift. "I want to tear them down."

But Jonathan Fiechter, acting director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, worries a quick charter merger may force healthy, well-run thrifts to act like banks - and get into commercial lending - when they really should not.

"You can ask the question whether or not, if we were starting from scratch, we would create a specialized mortgage lender," he said. "The problem with that question is, we have one. We have an infrastructure already set up, hundreds of thousands of people employed by the thrift industry, their whole business strategy geared toward residential lending.

"My druthers would be to eliminate the barriers to exit and entry between the thrift charter and the bank charter, and have the consuming public determine what our financial system looks like."

Thomas O'Donnell, a Smith Barney thrift analyst who titled his most recent report "Savings & Loans: Welcoming the End of the World as We Know It," said he thinks he knows what that system will look like in a few years.

Half of today's savings and loans will have been acquired by banks, he said, and the rest will be doing much more nonhousing consumer lending than they do now.

Stephen D. Hailer, president of $113 million-asset North Akron Savings Association in Akron, Ohio, shares at least part of that view. "I really see thrifts like mine certainly accessing more venues, such as increasing consumer lending activities and home equity type activities," he said. "The buzzword seems to be 'community bank.'"

Atlantic Bank's Mr. Connell has another vision, one that may be more ominous for thrifts. "I think credit unions will probably replace S&Ls as the consumer banks of the United States," he said. "There is still the viability of institutions that serve only individuals, and credit unions do that."

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