Tucked inside the OCC's operating-subsidiary rule is a radical new approach to handling Community Reinvestment Act protests.

Gone will be protracted CRA battles. Instead the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency will act on almost all applications by well- capitalized banks within 45 days, regardless of the number of CRA protests filed.

There are only two exceptions to the rule, which takes effect Dec. 31. The agency may delay applications for up to 10 days if the charges could result in a "needs to improve" or "substantial noncompliance" rating under the CRA; the delay will give examiners time to check out the complaint. And the OCC may hold up an application even longer if it has serious reservations about what the bank is proposing.

"We are confident that we will have enough time to review an application," said Matthew D. Roberts, senior deputy comptroller. "We have built in flexibility for us to do the job that needs to be done."

Bankers hailed the new approach. "This is a workable solution," said Agnes J. Bundy, senior vice president at Fleet Financial Group in Boston. "Unwarranted protests should not hold up an application."

Joe D. Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, said his group has pushed for more than a decade for this type of rule. The problem, he said, has been that regulators occasionally allow heavily protested applications to languish.

"We are very positive on this," he said. "It doesn't eliminate protests, nor should it. But it does set up a time frame for a denial or approval decision."

But most community activists criticized the rule.

"They are closing the doors to any possible constructive input or analysis of a bank's lending to minorities or low-income people," said Bruce Marks, president of the Boston-based Neighborhood Assistance Corporation of America.

"The results are going to be more converts to our tactics of right- between-the-eyes, take-it-to-the-streets, junkyard-dog style of advocacy - of doing whatever it takes to bring the banks to their knees."

"We don't think this is a good idea," agreed John Taylor, president of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition. Regulators just spent two years rewriting the CRA rules to focus more on performance than paperwork, he noted. Those rules took effect for small banks on Jan. 1 and become effective for large banks on July 1.

"They ought to give the new CRA regulations a chance to work before they change the parameters," he said.

Allen J. Fishbein, general counsel to the Center for Community Change, questioned whether the agency would be able to thoroughly review a CRA protest in 10 days. But he said the OCC's rule is better than a similar proposal by the Fed, which has pledged to approve most applications within 15 days unless activists raise a "substantial" CRA compliance issue.

The OCC unveiled the rule Wednesday as part of a package that will allow banks to offer products and services through direct subsidiaries, rather than through a holding company unit.

The new rules include concrete time limits within which the OCC must act on bank requests. For bids to open branches, charter new banks, or combine existing banks, the agency must decide within 45 days of receiving the application or 15 days after the comment period closes, whichever is less.

The agency also must act within 30 days of receipt of an application to convert from a state to a national charter or to start a trust department.

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