Little by little, bankers are beginning to accept the idea of merging their business with the thrift industry - lock, stock, and insurance fund.

The most recent testament to that emerging trend came in an address by James M. Culberson, president-elect of the American Bankers Association, at a meeting of North Carolina bankers.

"Somewhere down the road, I cannot help but believe the funds are going to be merged - whether it is one year or two years or five years, the industries are so similar," he said, according to a transcript provided to American Banker.

Those words might sound like nothing short of heresy in an industry that has waged a holy war against any and all who suggested that they should help pay for the thrift industry's insurance fund. Yet Mr. Culberson may have expressed a view that is more widely held among bankers than commonly thought.

"There is a feeling in the industry that it is inevitable," said one industry leader, who asked not to be named.

In the past, it was commonly assumed that an insurance fund merger might be the logical outcome if Congress first merged two major federal regulatory agencies - the Office of Thrift Supervision and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency - and then created a single charter for both banks and thrifts.

Now, though, some are saying it might be action on the insurance fund that will open the door to a common regulator and charter.

This line of reasoning begins with the fact that the thrift industry is already being absorbed by banks. A third of the deposits insured by the Savings Association Insurance Fund are held by banks, giving bankers a major stake in the resolution of the insurance fund's problems.

Many bankers believe they will be called upon to help finance the capitalization of the thrift fund. There are only three sources of funding for the thrift fund, they reason, and two of them - taxpayers and savings and loans - are either unwilling or unable to foot the bill. That leaves banks.

If banks are called on to help pay for the thrift fund, they will want something in return - and that something is likely to come from the thrift charter.

The most obvious sweetener that Congress could offer banks would be the special powers now enjoyed by unitary thrift holding companies. But that isn't what bankers are looking for.

Sure, banks envy the unitaries' ability to engage in insurance and securities underwriting, as well as their freedom from the kind of ownership restrictions that prevent banks from buying into nonfinancial companies.

But as a matter of practical politics, bank lobbyists don't think those powers are in the cards.

"I'd like them," said Alfred Pollard, chief lobbyist for the Bankers Roundtable. "But I don't think that the securities and insurance industries are just going to go to sleep while Congress does that."

Instead, what many bankers may want is to simply eliminate the thrift charter, which they regard as a menace, responsible for the savings and loan bailout of 1989 and the punitive banking law of 1991.

Bankers also remember how failing thrifts drove up interest rates in the 1980s by paying a premium to draw in deposits, and they are starting to ask how long it will be until the next thrift crisis ripples through the financial services industry.

"If we have to pay for any part of SAIF, we will insist that the thrift charter be eliminated," said one prominent bank lobbyist.

Paul Schosberg, president of America's Community Bankers, the big thrift trade group, thinks both industries should look upon the insurance fund turmoil as an opportunity to create a new charter that is better than the existing ones for both banks and thrifts.

And he is convinced that there is growing interest among bankers and thrift executives alike in addressing a merger of the industries.

He just may be right.

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