Timothy P. Hartman declares banks are ready to unite behind common causes and speak to Congress with one voice. But he's not sure bank trade groups can get lawmakers to respond.
A vice chairman of NationsBank Corp. and head of its Texas operations, Mr. Hartman is preparing for another round of intensive lobbying on Capitol Hill, taking up where he left off a year ago in urging legislators to modernize banking laws.
The executive and NationsBank lobbyist Mark Leggett plan to start calling on newly elected lawmakers in mid-November. That means Mr. Hartman will again be spending lots of time commuting between Dallas and Washington.
What's goading Mr. Hartman into action is a concern that trader lobbyists have not grown beyond what he says is their traditional specialty - blocking legislation.
Convincing Congress to overturn parts of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation Improvement Act "will require greater degrees of organization and intensity than what our trade associations have shown," said Mr. Hartman. "I am not convinced they can deliver."
Of course, other bankers have pointed accusing fingers at Mr. Hartman and NationsBank, claiming the Charlotte, N.C.-based company itself became a legislative obstacle by going too far in pursuit of interstate branching (See story on page 1.)
But Mr. Hartman said there are issues around which NationsBank and the entire industry can rally.
The common thread in cutting regulatory paperwork and permitting interstate branching "is eliminating redundant regulatory costs and improving productivity."
The message "we have to deliver," Mr. Hartman said, "is that it is in everyone's best interest - particularly taxpayers' - to open avenues of profitability. That would improve the industry's viability. And we would be better able to maintain the solvency of the FDIC."
The banking industry should concentrate lobbying efforts on members of the House and Senate banking committees, Mr. Hartman said, because the electorate and Congress at large are not interested in banking issues.
And even banking committee members will require delicate handling, Mr. Hartman said.
"If a bank fails, committee members are immediately rebuked by their constituents," he said. "On the other hand, they get very little credit if they show great vision and pass legislation that improves the operating environment for banks and sparks economic growth."
A key to breaking the impasse is displaying a level of self-discipline that would permit a relaxing of regulations, Mr. Hartman said.
In turn, Mr. Hartman said, legislators must come to terms with the consequences of restrictive laws. "At this point, the message we are getting from the folks who oversee our industry is that the avoidance of risk is more important than the fueling of future growth."
Mr. Hartman said NationsBank "certainly" is going to try working with the American Bankers Association and other banking trade groups in convincing lawmakers to act.
But the situation is urgent, Mr. Hartman said. As net interest margins normalize and regulatory costs continue to climb, he said, "Our returns will be less than what they have been and bank securities will be a less desirable investment."
The reality "is sufficient to bring the industry together," Mr. Hartman said. But if the banking trade groups can't incite legislators into action, Mr. Hartman doesn't want Nations Bank to get caught flatfooted.
If the trade lobbyists can't get it in gear, he said, "we will pursue other alternatives."