WASHINGTON - The Farm Credit Administration could decide as early as Thursday to postpone its plan to grant national charters, which banks complain would give the tax-exempt lenders that the agency supervises a competitive advantage.

The agency had intended to start issuing approvals Jan. 1, but its two-member board is scheduled Thursday to hear staff recommendations whether the agency should undergo a formal rulemaking process before allowing Farm Credit lenders to expand into new territories.

The General Accounting Office concluded in October that the agency should have submitted the plan to Congress and the Treasury Department for review, as required by two federal procedural oversight laws.

A government-sponsored enterprise, the Farm Credit System operates as a cooperative of 158 tax-exempt lenders that are permitted to make loans in set geographic districts.

"I have directed FCA staff to explore options regarding a formal rulemaking and report back to the FCA board," Chairman Michael M. Reyna said in a Nov. 14 letter to House Agriculture Committee Chairman Larry Combest.

The lack of a formal review has angered Treasury Department officials and House Banking Committee Chairman Jim Leach, a vocal critic of the national charter initiative. They have called on Mr. Reyna to suspend all action on pending applications.

In a Nov. 30 letter to Mr. Reyna, Gregory A. Baer, assistant Treasury secretary for financial institutions, recommended "that the FCA suspend approval of applications for national charters for Farm Credit System associations pending completion of a formal rulemaking on this issue."

Though a Farm Credit Administration spokeswoman refused to say whether the agency would act Thursday, Mr. Reyna testified before House Banking in October that he would consider delaying the plan if the GAO report ordered by Rep. Leach determined the process for granting national charters was flawed.

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