Across the nation, top bankers are celebrating the interstate branching bill just passed by Congress, hailing it as a landmark liberalization of the rules governing banking.

"This is a great day for the industry," declared Eugene A. Miller, chairman and chief executive of Detroit-based Comerica Inc. The legislation, he said, will help banks "operate more efficiently and get into new markets ."

Richard L. Thomas, chairman and chief executive of First Chicago Corp., called the bill "a profound step that represents a turn of attitudes in Washington and shows there is no doubt that nationwide banking companies eventually will emerge."

In Washington, lobbyists said the bill's passage clears the decks for action on two other bills with major implications for the industry: a bankruptcy reform bill and a rewrite of the nation's environmental cleanup law that would ease lender liability concerns.

On Wall Street, some mergerand-acquisition specialists took the news in stride, saying interstate deals are already running at a record pace, except in a few states. Nevertheless, investors bid up the stock of Mercantile Bancorp., one of several banks in Missouri that are presumed merger targets when the federal law preempts Missouri's restrictive rules.

Meanwhile, the Independent Bankers Association greeted passage of the bill with "benign resignation," said John Shivers, the organization's president. Smaller banks have long worded that interstate organizations would siphon deposits out of communities.

"Interstate will not sound the death knell for community banks, but neither will it be cause for rejoicing on our nation's Main Streets," said Mr. Shivers, who is also president of Southwest Bank, Fort Worth.

Some executives at larger banks conceded that the legislation they fought for so ardently isn't as dramatic as it might seem at first blush. The bill, which over three years tears down remaining barriers to interstate expansion and permits banks to operate multistate branch networks, doesn't so much usher in a new era as fuel trends already in place, many bankers admit.

"It looks epoch-making, but the effect will actually be incremental," said Robert D. Geddes, government and legal affairs director of Oregon-based U.S. Bancorp.

"It's not going to change the fundamentals, because consolidation is happening anyway? said Anthony Terracciano, chairman and 'chief executive of New Jersey-based First Fidelity Bancorp. "This allows it to happen more effectively."

Analysts note that the rapid pace of consolidation may not increase much. "Last year, there were 398 bank mergers, more than one per day," said J. Richard Fredericks of Montgomery Securities. "The number of bank companies is already down 34% from its peak, and 46% of the banks among the top 50 in 1980 are already gone."

Similarly, the bill's central provisions permitting multistate branching under a single charter will simply accelerate a process of centralization and cost reduction that is well under way.

All the same, there are plenty of bankers who see the changes contained in the legislation as fundamental. "I think it is a new era in the history of banking," declared William J. Bogaard, who is general counsel of Los Angeles-based First Interstate Bancorp. "Interstate branch limitations have been a pillar of bank regulation until now."

Current law requires banks to operate separate banks in every state where they have branches. Each bank must have its own management and directors, and each is regulated separately and required to prepare its own quarterly reports.

As restrictions are phased out, cost savings from combining multistate units could be substantial. Mr. Bognard estimated that First Interstate could save "tens of millions of dollars" by operating its 13 bank subsidiaries under one charter, though he added that the company has not yet decided to do so.

Bankers also stress the convenience to customers from combining banks. For example, customers could deposit checks at their bank when traveling in other states. "I think it is a major step for users of bank services," said Andrew Craig 3d, chairman and chief executive of St. Louisbased Boatmen's Bancshares.

Still, many compames say they don't plan to eliminate separate bank units, noting the advantages of keeping high-ranking managers close to customers and having directors with ties to local business communities. Banc One Corp. senior executive vice president William Boardman said that for marketing and community relations reasons, the Ohio-based company intends to maintmn distinct regional franchises. But Banc One might combine banks operating in single markets, such as Cincinnati and its northern Kentucky suburbs. Of course, the question on every banker's mind is how interstate branching will affect merger activity. In many places, the answer may be "not much."

"Most of the major states have a law in place which enables mergers and acquisitions anyway," pointed out Ira Stepanian, chairman and chief executive of Bank of Boston Corp.

Interstate branching could also stimulate market entry mergers by extending some of the cost-cutling benefits of in-state acquisitions to multistate combinations. While there may not be overlapping branch networks to combine. savings could still be achieved by getting rid of administrative operations of the target bank.

And, of course, there are states where mergers are still restricted. Missouri allows only companies from contiguous states to make acquisitions, while Hawaii still prohibits outsiders from buying banks. And some states in the Southeast allow entry only to bank compames based in the region. All these limitations will disappear.

Compames such as Boatmen's and Florida-based Barnett Banks Inc., which have been partly protected, could find themselves the focus of takeover speculation. For his part, Boatmen's Mr. Craig says, "I don't pay much attention."

Howard Kapiloff, John Racine, and Steve Klinkerman contributed to this report.

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