J.P. Morgan & Co. has resigned as a member of the Bankers Roundtable, the national trade group representing commercial banking's 125 largest players.
Whether Morgan's move is an isolated event or foreshadows an exodus is unclear. But two other high-profile banks-NationsBank Corp. and Banc One Corp.-are clearly restless.
Both megabanks have lobbyists working hard to enact financial reform, but the Roundtable remains stubbornly opposed to the legislation.
Annie Hall, Banc One's director of public policy, said the $115 billion- asset bank is considering quitting. "We've had serious discussions around Banc One regarding the efficacy of the Bankers Roundtable," she said. "But we have not reached any decision, and frankly our people are torn."
NationsBank's lobbyist Mark Leggett declined to comment, but other bank lobbyists said that NationsBank is questioning why it belongs to a group working against its interests.
If either bank does withdraw, it could mean double-trouble for the group because both Banc One and NationsBank are involved in mergers with other important Roundtable members. Banc One is combining with First Chicago NBD Corp., while NationsBank is merging with BankAmerica Corp.
News of Morgan's defection surfaced only this week, though chairman and chief executive officer Douglas A. Warner resigned in a June 12 letter to Norwest Corp. chairman and CEO Richard M. Kovacevich, the Roundtable's current president.
"It wasn't a good fit for us on issues," Morgan spokesman Joseph Evangelisti explained. For example, the Roundtable focuses on retail banking issues such as bank insurance sales that are of no interest to the wholesale-oriented Morgan. Mr. Evangelisti added: "We're looking at our expenses very carefully."
Morgan pays dues to at least five other national trade groups, including the American Bankers Association, the Securities Industry Association, and the Investment Company Institute.
While the Roundtable's dues are relatively low-$54,000 for a bank Morgan's size-the group has levied substantial special assessments in each of the last two years to fund its affiliate, the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat, or Bits.
This year the Bits hit was roughly $200,000 for the largest banks and that sealed Mr. Warner's decision to quit, several sources said.
The Roundtable is a group in transition. In March executive director Anthony T. Cluff announced he would retire and is expected to leave by yearend. A search committee has been formed to find his successor, and sources said members want someone "high-profile like Carroll A. Campbell," the former governor of South Carolina who runs the American Council of Life Insurance.
Mr. Cluff is on vacation, but Alfred Pollard, the Roundtable's senior director of legislative affairs, downplayed the significance of Morgan's exit.
Asked to confirm the bank's resignation, Mr. Pollard said: "Yeah, Morgan left. I can't remember when. ... I didn't really hear anything particular about it."
But staffers at other trade groups and Roundtable members said that when a big bank like Morgan walks, an association loses revenue and, more importantly, clout.
Consolidation has already diminished the Roundtable's cachet. For starters, the 125th largest bank is no longer that large, roughly $2 billion of assets. Also, fewer bankers from top-tier banks are involved in the group.
The Bankers Roundtable was formed in 1993 when the Association of Bank Holding Companies and the Reserve City Bankers merged.
The Roundtable's board meets next on Sept. 17-18, and one member said he expects Morgan's resignation "will be a heavy topic of discussion."