WASHINGTON - The Federal Reserve Board's inspector general will investigate one of the industry's biggest complaints - that examiners differ in how they interpret rules.

The review is one of 19 audits Inspector General Brent Bowen is planning for the coming five years. Others will focus on fair-lending, bank mergers, and foreign bank supervision.

Mr. Bowen said in recently released strategic plan that he will conduct four audits to determine if examiners at the 12 reserve banks are enforcing regulations consistently.

The first audit, scheduled for 1997, will evaluate how Fed examiners coordinate with state regulators. The inspector general also will gauge the quality of state examinations.

The second, also scheduled for 1997, will focus on whether the Fed provides enough training for examiners so they are equally equipped to interpret the rules consistently.

The third, planned for 1998, will review how reserve banks comply with Fed policy directives.

The final of the four audits will explore in 1999 the process each reserve bank uses to ensure it is following the Fed's guidance.

Karen Thomas, director of regulatory affairs at the Independent Bankers Association of America, applauded the inspector general's focus, saying bankers have long complained of inconsistent treatment.

"You can have the bank being jerked back and forth if one (examiner) says one thing and the other says something else," Ms. Thomas said. "That puts the bank between a rock and a hard place."

Consistent treatment would be a "breath of fresh air," said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association. "It is a very laudable goal," he said, and the other agencies should conduct similar reviews.

The inspector general also plans several audits on consumer compliance issues.

Next year he will evaluate the Fed's enforcement of the fair-lending laws, seeking to determine "whether instances of apparent discrimination are fully investigated, and whether appropriate enforcement action is taken."

Community activists said this is desperately needed. "We have seen so little tangible evidence that the Fed has been aggressively enforcing the Fair Housing Act that an audit is long overdue," said Allen Fishbein, general counsel at the Center for Community Change. "The Fed appears to be lagging behind the others in this area."

Mr. Bowen also will review the revised Community Reinvestment Act rules approved by all the regulators in April to see how the central bank implemented the changes. That audit is scheduled for 1997.

Bankers will pay particular attention to review of enforcement of CRA rules, Ms. Thomas said. "We want to make sure they are interpreted so they are not more burdensome than they need to be," she said.

Mr. Bowen is to complete a review of the bank application process this year, looking for ways to speed merger approvals. Also this year he is to finish a review of the procedures examiners use to evaluate a bank's risk- assessment models.

Foreign bank supervision also will come under Mr. Bowen's scrutiny. His office will evaluate the New York Federal Reserve Bank's response to a 1991 law requiring it to supervise foreign banks.

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