NationsBank Corp. has been going it alone on its crusade to dismantle interstate banking restrictions in the Southeast.
But though other regional banks are not enthusiastically supporting the effort, they also are not offering direct opposition. And that act of omission can only help the aggressive superregional.
Community bankers, who would be expected to most strongly oppose dismantling the so-called Southeast Compact, are divided on the issue. That has given NationsBank an opportunity to push its plan through the legislatures of several key states.
"Community bankers are more receptive to breaking up the compact because they don't see the dangers that they once thought were there," said Julian Hester, executive director of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia. "I think you'll probably see most all southeastern states leave in a three-year period."
Built for Protection
The pact among 10 southeastern states and the District of Columbia was passed in the mid-1980s to permit reciprocal acquisitions within the region while walling out interlopers from other parts of the country.
The compact was designed mainly to protect homegrown institutions from then-threatening New York City banks.
But today, said Pat Satterfield, executive director of the Virginia Association of Community Banks, many community bankers would rather have nationwide interstate banking engineered on a state-by-state basis than with a sweeping law made by Congress.
Hit by Defections
"There are some who feel it would be better to do it while the states can have some control, rather than wait until Congress mandates something and rams it down our throat," said Ms. Satterfield.
Tennessee was the first state to pull out of the compact, in 1991. The defection of North Carolina earlier this year was even more influential. That's because three of the region's strongest banks - NationsBank, First Union Corp., and Wachovia Corp. - are based in the Tarheel State. North Carolina's legislature voted to open the state to full interstate banking by 1996. Charlotte-based NationsBank is expected to push for similar legislation in Florida, Georgia, South Carolina, and Virginia when legislative sessions begin in January.
NationsBank is a champion of national interstate banking, eager for the chance to consolidate its separate state charters and save lots of expenses in the process. It also is eager to expand more aggressively into other regions.
Not Carved in Stone
But for years, the company's efforts to break down interstate barriers were stymied. The odds picked up substantially after the North Carolina action earlier this year.
One factor helping NationsBank is a growing sentiment in the region that southeastern banks are now strong enough to compete with banks anywhere. NationsBank, for example, has grown to become the country's fifth-largest bank company, with $124 billion of assets.
Even the originators of the compact think it may have outlived its usefulness.
"I don't think there was any intention for it to be a forever. carved-in-stone situation," said Robert Strickland, the retired former chairman of Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks, who helped forge the Southeast pact. "The compact served a good purpose, but its days are numbered probably."
Nevertheless, overturning the compact on a state-by-state basis will take time, because of the vagaries of legislative politics in each state.
Also, few banks share NationsBank's enthusiasm for breaking down the barriers immediately. The reason: Few are interested in expanding outside the region.
"A lot of banks could care less one way or the other," said Walter C. Ayres, executive vice president of the Virginia Bankers Association.
Fortunately for NationsBank, there's not much organized opposition either.
"If Citibank wants to get into this market, they don't want to buy five community banks in five different areas," said Ms. Satterfield of the Virginia trade group. "And community bankers in Virginia compete against NationsBank every day now and do it quite successfully."
Battle Seen in Florida
Preliminary indications are that NationsBank will face its toughest fight in Florida, where community bankers are resentful of the way market share in their state has been carved up by the larger banks.
Walter Law, executive vice president of the Community Bankers of Florida, noted that more than half the banking assets in the Sunshine State are now controlled by out-of-state banks.
"We feel as an association we have to protect our system in Florida," Mr. Law said. "The banking public is better served where you have local control. Unless my board and their members change their minds, our current policy is to oppose nationwide banking."
That message may have gotten through.
Michael M. Fields, NationsBank's regional executive for northern Florida, said the North Carolina behemoth has not yet decided whether to introduce an interstate banking bill next year.
"We're just analyzing our various options," he said.