A community group is offering banks a way to avoid the Community Reinvestment Act protests that have dogged most recent mergers.

The Rev. Charles Stith, president of the Boston-based Organization for New Equality, said Monday that his group will not protest against any bank that lives up to 10 principles designed to protect low-income people.

The principles mainly require banks to devote at least 4.5% of assets per year to community reinvestment programs, to make an "outstanding" Community Reinvestment Act grade a company goal, and to have the chief executive personally pledge to make the bank a leader in serving low-income neighborhoods.

"This is an attempt on our part to provide some clarity," he said at an economic meeting sponsored by his group. "This states what the actual costs will be."

Comptroller of the Currency Eugene Ludwig, who spoke at the' meeting, said he is still studying the principles, though he declared he's "very optimistic" the banking community can live with them.

Mr. Stith said Wall Street's demand for short-term profits and the banking industry's need to respond to fierce competition from nonbanks have made mergers inevitable.

Besides the investment and CRA pledges, banks also are asked to install ATMs whenever they close an inner-city branch; to hire more minorities and women; to develop mortgages with flexible underwriting standards, and to commit 1% of their after-tax profits to supporting CRA groups.

Mr. Stith said several industry leaders, including Fleet Financial Group and Bank of California, already have made similar CRA pledges.

Mr. Ludwig, in his address to the group, said bankers and community activists have a duty to continue Martin Luther King Jr.'s quest for equality.

"We must build on past progress to extend economic freedom and opportunity to more Americans and to honor the legacy he left for all Americans," said Mr. Ludwig, whose remarks came on what would have been the slain civil rights leader's 67th birthday.

Bankers must continue to devise new ways to safely and profitably extend credit to low-income areas, he said. "The American penchant for innovation and experimentation has long proved that credit can be extended well beyond what skeptics at any given time in our history deem feasible," he said.

But Mr. Ludwig said bankers shouldn't take foolish risks. "Easy credit not based on sound banking principles not only scars the institution but also scars the community and the family," he said.

Mr. Ludwig also said it is too early to tell how well the scores of mortgage programs aimed at low-income borrowers are performing.

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