Outside bank directors are becoming increasingly worried about the competence of their management teams and are taking more activist roles in the companies they oversee, according to a survey released Thursday.

Only 47% of directors at the nation's biggest banks and thrifts would give their managers top marks for ability to run their institutions in five to 10 years, according to the survey by Towers Perrin, a management consulting firm based in New York.

And about 45% of the directors surveyed believe their management teams have been slow to address critical issues such as cost cutting and asset quality.

The survey comes at a time when directors are under increasing scrutiny from regulators and facing new levels of legal liability for their roles in overseeing management.

"The regulators have never [before] held boards as directly responsible," said Donald E. McNees, a vice president at Towers Perrin.

Towers Perrin queried oustide directors at the nation's 200 largest banks and 50 largest thrfits; 12% of questionnaires were returned by directors representing the institutions.

Among the findings supporting Towers Perrin's conclusions about directors' activism:

* 56% of bank respondents and 80% of thrift respondents said they are increasing their discussions with management.

* 69% of respondents from banks and 80% from thrifts said they are altering board committee responsibilities.

* 69% from banks and 60% from thrifts said they are requiring more reports from management.

* 63% of responding banks and 80% of thrifts said they are meeting more frequently with regulators.

Not surprisingly, the boards of low-performing banks are the most activist, Towers Perrin found.

"The high-performing banks spend the majority of their time approving and monitoring, with significant attention to compliance, credit risk, and other risk management activities," the report said.

"The boards of the low-performing banks seem to devote more time to active formulation of policy."

Despite their concern about competence, directors credit their managements with certain strengths. Eighty-two percent rate their managements strong in financial management, 64% in strategic planning, and 60% in credit management.

But only 44% of respondents ranked their managers strong in technology; only 29% strong in marketing, and only 36% strong in human resources.

Bank directors were asked to pick the banks "best equipped to compete in the future" in their own regions.

In the Northeast, Fleet Financial Group got the respondents' nod with 14% of the vote. In the Southeast, Wachovia Corp. won out with 32%; in the Midwest, Banc One Corp. with 27%; and in the West, BankAmerica Corp. got a whopping 47% of directors' votes.

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