Researchers at the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. are suggesting a middle ground in the debate over merging the bank and thrift charters.

"What is needed are certain adjustments to current law, short of charter unification, that will enable banks and thrifts to switch charter types easily," the FDIC suggests in an inch-thick study sent to Congress this week.

"If thrifts could become banks without penalty and without adverse consequences for themselves or their owners, many, perhaps most, might do so."

The researchers stressed that the agency is not endorsing this proposal, but the study does detail how it would work. According to the study, two traditional barriers to thrifts changing charters have been alleviated: tax breaks and branching rights.

Congress this year decided thrifts converting to banks will not have to repay tax deductions taken for bad debt reserves prior to 1988. And by June 1, banks will be able to branch nationwide.

The FDIC said two hurdles remain. Banks, unlike thrifts, may not be owned by nonfinancial companies. In addition, banks may not own service corporations, or units with wide investment powers such as real estate development and property management.

"One way to ease these impediments would be to allow a number of years for a thrift or holding company to divest of the impermissible activity," the FDIC said.

The Sept. 30 law capitalizing the Savings Association Insurance Fund envisions melding the fund into the Bank Insurance Fund on Jan. 1, 1999, as long as the bank and thrift charters have been combined by then.

Separately Tuesday, the American Bankers Association and America's Community Bankers vowed to work together on charter reform, establishing a joint task force of 14 senior executives.

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