WASHINGTON -- Many banks like the idea of customizing Community Reinvestment Act compliance, but most say they won't use the new "strategic plan" option.

A revised CRA reform proposal, out for comment until Monday, would give banks the option of designing their own CRA exams.

Bankers like the strategic plan idea because -- since regulators must approve a plan before it's implemented -- CRA ratings would become more predictable.

Still, to win regulatory approval, banks would have to seek suggestions from community activists through a month-long publication and comment process.

Besides contending with community groups, bankers fear that airing their plans could tip off competitors.

"It's the hassle factor," said Donald A. Mullane, executive vice president of the Bank of America unit of BankAmerica Corp., which probably won't take the plan approach. "It would really take an enormous amount of energy."

But he admitted that the strategic plan option is appealing because "it's like knowing the score of the San Francisco 49ers-Dallas game before it's played."

Banks of any size can choose to be evaluated under a strategic plan rather than the standard test.

The plan, which can run up to five years, must have "measurable" lending, service, and investment goals. The bank is evaluated on how well it achieves those goals.

In the plan, the bank specifies goals that would constitute satisfactory performance. To be considered for an outstanding rating, banks must include both satisfactory and outstanding goals.

Once a bank has developed a plan, community groups get 30 days to comment on it.

Then three months before the plan is to take effect, the bank must send it to federal regulators for approval, along with all comments received, and any revisions made in response.

Industry sources said they expect regulators to use those comments extensively in the approval process. It is unclear how much influence community groups will have over the plans, but many banks fear the groups will wield too much power over the outcome.

Bank of America's Mr. Mullane said comment from the legions of community groups in California would blur the focus of the bank's CRA program.

"We'd have a much broader-based program spread more thinly than we'd like," said Mr. Mullane, whose company owns banks with both outstanding and satisfactory CRA ratings.

Both community groups and big banks endorsed including tailored exams as pan of CRA reform.

The strategic plan option is designed to give banks greater certainty in CRA compliance and more flexibility to adapt programs to individual bank needs.

The option also was envisioned as a way to improve partnerships between banks and community groups.

But Jeanine Catalano, principal of San Francisco-based Secura Group, said most banks are not going to use this alternative.

"The small banks don't like the recordkeeping requirement," she said. "And while the large banks think the plan has merit, they don't want to put something out for public comment."

Lucy Griffin, a Virginia-based compliance consultant, said consumer groups' influence over strategic plans is another example of bankers' losing control over their business.

"Is a bank some form of public utility, or a business?" she asked.

But James McLaughlin, director of agency relations at the American Bankers Association, said banks should reconsider.

"I think a lot of people are dismissing [the plan] out of hand," he said. "Banks can really tailor a five-year program that will enable them to meet the unique needs of their community and their institution."

Stephen Cross, deputy comptroller for compliance in the Comptroller of the Currency's Office, said the option isn't right for every bank.

It would benefit, for example, a bank with many branches in different markets because, although the bank would have to address each market, it could file a single plan, he said.

The few banks that do choose the strategic plan option will set the stage for others, Mr. Cross predicted.

"My guess is that there will be some pioneers who will try the strategic plan option," he said. "If those pioneers think it works great, it will expand and others will pick it up."

One such pioneer will be NationsBank Corp. The Charlotte, N.C.-based behemoth will likely use the plan in some of its smaller markets, including E1 Paso and Memphis, said Catherine P. Bessant, senior vice president.

Using the plan in those markets would create clear-cut goals, Ms. Bessant said. The strategic plan option is easy for Nationsbank to use because the plan's structure is similar to the bank's own lending commitment plans, she said.

But even NationsBank is not going to use the plan in its largest markets, according to Ms. Bessant.

It does not want to make marketing and lending strategies known to its competitors. "We still have concerns about releasing proprietary information," she said.

While few large banks are likely to use the plan, even fewer small banks are expected to sign on. In 43 comment letters to the Independent Bankers Association of America, only one bank said it might take advantage of the plan.

"It's more for those large banks that have cut their deals already with the consumer organizations," said Diane M. Casey, executive director of the IBAA.

Margaret P. Causby, senior vice president of $280 million-asset Old Point National Bank, Hampton, Va., said using a strategic plan would be more trouble than it's worth.

"I don't want to go through that rigmarole," Ms. Causby said.

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