Large insurance and securities companies must prove they can fulfill customer protection and community lending obligations before launching thrifts, an industry regulator said Wednesday.
Ellen S. Seidman, the new director of the Office of Thrift Supervision, said regulators will make sure that big financial firms, several of which plan to offer banking products outside traditional branch networks, spell out how they will protect consumer privacy and meet Community Reinvestment Act requirements.
"This is very much a changing world," Ms. Seidman told a meeting of Women in Housing and Finance. "There must be adequate safeguards when the primary delivery systems are not branches."
For instance, customers must know whether products are federally insured, she said. Also, institutions that plan to offer banking products electronically must show that adequate security measures are in place to protect customer privacy and prevent on-line theft.
Although these companies generally won't serve geographically defined markets, Ms. Seidman said they must develop community lending plans.
"CRA applies to nontraditional entities," she said. "We will work with these institutions as they grow to make sure they are meeting their obligations."
Finally, diversified financial firms must take steps to prevent their thrifts from giving preferential treatment to affiliated firms, she said. "We want to prevent conflicts of interest."
Last week the OTS ruled on the first of a wave of thrift charter requests from financial firms by letting Principal Group start an institution. Applications from State Farm Mutual Automobile Insurance Co., Travelers Group, and securities firm A.G. Edwards & Co. are among those still pending.
Ms. Seidman also urged Congress to "take another look" at plans to eliminate the federal thrift charter as part of financial reform legislation. "I don't care what you call them, but you need to retain an option for housing-focused institutions."