This year chief executives are retiring at Bank of America (Dick Rosenberg), First Interstate (Ed Carson), Amsouth (John Woods), First Chicago/NBD (Dick Thomas), National City (Ed Brandon), Wells Fargo (Carl Reichardt), and Keycorp (Victor Riley). I can't recall another period in which so many chief executives at major banks have retired so close to each other.

These outstanding industry leaders have amassed a combined service record to the industry of more than 250 years. They will be leaving enormous shoes to fill at a critical juncture in the life of the banking industry.

They each built, or in some cases rebuilt, banking companies ranked among the nation's largest and most successful. Equally important, they involved themselves on the industry's behalf in the great public policy debates of their time.

They spoke out forcefully, and they served in leadership roles in the industry's trade groups. No one had to wonder where they stood on the issues of the day.

The banking industry is undergoing a restructuring on a scale and at a pace never before attempted anywhere in the world. After more than 60 years of being hemmed in by government-imposed restraints on pricing and on geographic and product expansion, the U.S. banking system is coming of age.

Tremendous new companies are being forged to operate throughout the nation and offer a wide array of financial services to consumers and businesses. The competition is becoming intense and the stakes immense.

The challenges for bank management have never been greater. There are tremendous pressures for bank chief executives to become more focused on the growth and performance of their individual companies. The price of failure, or of even mediocre performance, is extinction.

It would be understandable, with all of the demands on their time, if bank executives were to eschew participation in the public policy arena. While this would be understandable, it would also be terribly short- sighted.

Despite the efforts and gains made in recent years, banking remains one of the nation's most over-regulated and burdened industries. The outcome of the public policy debate about the future of financial services in the U.S., and the role banks will play in that future, is far from settled.

At this writing, Congress is on the verge of imposing on the banking industry a $12 billion levy to help the thrifts service the Fico bonds issued by the old Federal Savings and Loan Insurance Corp. It is also considering reform of the Glass-Steagall Act, the authority of banks to sell insurance, the future of the S&L industry, and a major regulatory relief bill.

Other very large issues will be addressed in future years. These include reform of the deposit insurance system, restructuring the regulatory agencies, rationalization of the Federal Home Loan Bank System, and possible repeal or substantial modification of the Bank Holding Company Act. Then there will be the ongoing battle to bring credit unions under regulatory and taxation regimes comparable to those imposed on banks.

Mr. Rosenberg, Mr. Carson, Mr. Woods, Mr. Thomas, Mr. Brandon, Mr. Reichardt, and Mr. Riley will be sorely missed. They worked tirelessly to help modernize the U.S. financial system and strengthen their institutions.

Fortunately, the industry has developed a new generation of very talented executives. If they become active on the political scene, as a fair number of them are already beginning to do, the banking industry and the nation's financial system will be in good hands.

Mr. Isaac, a former chairman of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., is chairman and chief executive officer of Secura Group, a financial services consulting firm based in Washington.

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