Lawmakers may want to kill it, but the federal thrift charter is pretty popular these days.
Insurance companies, securities firms, credit unions, and even telephone companies are lining up to open thrifts. The government has received 26 thrift charter applications this year, more than twice as many as in all of 1996.
Congress revitalized interest in the charter last year when it loosened operating restrictions and cut thrift costs. Congress doubled the amount of commercial loans a thrift may make and eased the so-called qualified thrift lender test by allowing credit card and student loans to count.
Rescuing the Savings Association Insurance Fund also meant that thrifts were no longer saddled with sky-high insurance premiums.
The Office of Thrift Supervision has been pushing the charter as well. As of July 1, the start-up capital required by OTS to charter dropped by a third, to $2 million. The agency also is trying to make it easier for credit unions to convert to thrift charters by simplifying the application process.
"There's a conscious decision (at OTS) to put the spotlight on the attractive aspects of being a savings institution," said Paul Schosberg, president of America's Community Bankers.
An obvious attraction to the federal thrift charter is its lack of ownership restrictions. Holding companies that own only one thrift may engage in a broad range of financial, commercial, and industrial businesses. For example, Temple-Inland Inc., a Texas paper and packaging company, owns $9 billion-asset Guaranty Federal Bank, Dallas. The company is one of 102 unitary thrift holding companies that engage in nonbanking activities.
Another characteristic that has interested several companies is the ability to branch nationwide. In addition, rather than complying with different state statutes, thrifts operate under one set of federal rules.
"The multitudes of conflicting state law restrictions are really difficult to deal with when you want to conduct a business on a national basis," said Laurence E. Platt, a partner at Kirkpatrick & Lockhart.
Transamerica Corp., one of Mr. Platt's clients, asked OTS for a thrift charter this month. The San Francisco insurance giant plans to offer subprime mortgages nationwide through its thrift. The company decided that offering these loans through its consumer finance unit, Transamerica Financial Services, was too costly and inefficient. The unit, which was sold last month, was required to obtain licenses and comply with different rules in each of the 44 states it operated in.
Similarly, Merrill Lynch & Co. in May chartered a thrift to streamline the marketing of its trust business. The charter allows Merrill Lynch Trust Cos., a unit that manages $48 billion of assets, to solicit business nationwide. Previously, the unit had to sell trust services through separate state-chartered trust companies.
"People are looking for a centralized way to market products, so the federal thrift charter makes sense," Mr. Platt said.
Congress' impetus for killing the thrift charter stems from last year's SAIF rescue law. The banking industry agreed to help bail out the thrift insurance fund on the condition that Congress merge the industries' charters.
Making good on the commitment, the House Banking Committee last month approved a bill that would force federal thrifts to convert to national banks within two years of the bill's enactment.