WASHINGTON - Bankers face more questions than answers about financial reform as they await a new year, a new President, and over 100 new congressmen.
And lobbyists say it may be several months before a coherent agenda emerges.
Chief among the uncertainties facing the banking industry is whether President-elect Bill Clinton will push for legislation to restructure the financial industry.
"The important thing is going to be what Clinton wants to propose," said Steve Verdier, a senior legislative counsel with the Independent Bankers Association of America, a trade group representing mostly community banks that do not favor wholesale revisions in banking law.
Although Clinton has yet to show his hand on bank reform issues, he is not expected to advocate the sweeping industry overhaul legislation that was characteristic of the Reagan and Bush administrations.
Consequently, bank lobbyists said they will pursue a narrower agenda in the coming year than they have during the past 12 years, when they could count on the support of the executive branch in championing such major reform.
"Banking needs to look at a limited agenda, to take a narrower rifle-shot approach," said one lobbyist.
Topping the list of the banking industry's legislative concerns now is undoing some of the regulatory burden imposed by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Improvement Act of 1991. The 1991 law imposed strict regulations on banks as a way to protect the federal Bank Insurance Fund.
"The banking industry has expressed concerns about the current regulatory scheme," said Joe Belew, president of the Consumer Bankers Association. "I think that signal has been received by the Clinton camp."
However, it is unclear how much time and prestige Clinton wants to expend on the issue, especially since House Banking Committee Chairman Henry B. Gonzalez, D-Tex., is fervently opposed to unraveling the 1991 law's regulatory requirements.
Gonzalez has noted that although bank executives complained the regulations would hurt bank profitability, the industry's profits actually have risen over the past year. In any event, he added, the regulations are necessary to ensure stability in the industry.
The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency on Dec. 14 reported that national banks posted $4.66 billion in profits for the third quarter of 1992, almost $3 billion higher than the profits reported for the third quarter of 1991.
"Clinton has got to decide whether he's going to take on Gonzalez on regulatory relief," said Verdier. "Or does he say he doesn't want this fight now? That's the big question."
Other industry concerns include a push for interstate branching rights and enhanced opportunity to offer a broader array of products and services, such as securities underwriting. But there again, questions remain about whether Clinton will want to engage Congress on issues that in the past have proven politically contentious.
On the other hand, some lobbyists noted, during the presidential campaign Clinton said he wanted to enhance the ability of U.S. firms to compete internationally. Repealing the Glass-Steagall Act, which separates investment and commercial banking, would be consistent with that goal, lobbyists said.
Belew said he expects little action on such issues during the first part of 1993, but does not write off the whole year. "When you look at the inefficient distribution system banks are forced to deal with, you can't help but conclude something needs to be done," he said.
However, Belew and others said they recognized Clinton is under enormous pressure "to come out of the gate" with some sort of legislation to stimulate jobs creation, and financial reform is likely to be a back-burner issue in the short term.
In addition, Clinton is expected to move quickly in seeking more funding to complete the savings and loan cleanup, which may dampen enthusiasm for tackling broader industry issues like Glass-Steagall reform.
"The S&L situation always has a tendency to get things off to a negative start," said Sam Baptista, president of the Financial Services Council, a group of financial firms devoted to a thorough rewriting of banking law. "At the same time, it should demonstrate to Congress that there are some deep-seated problems in the financial industry that need to be addressed. But it won't leave members [of Congress] with warm fuzzy feelings about the industry."
Congress itself represents a major question mark for bank lobbyists because of the wave of new members who will take seats in January.
"About half of the House Banking Committee is going to be new," Baptista noted. "It's going to take a while for them to get up to speed on the issues, and then it's going to take a while to decide what they want to do."
Some financial industry representatives privately said delay may be welcome, because they suspect new members of the House banking panel will be hostile to the notion of allowing banks and securities firms to get into each other's turf.
"The early-line, conventional wisdom is that the new members, at least on the Democratic side. are liberal, urban-oriented" and not well disposed to carrying water for large financial institutions seeking to offer new products and services. said one trade group lobbyist.
Verdier said the prevailing sentiment about the makeup of the House banking panel may prove overly pessimistic, and in any event is probably irrelevant, at least in the beginning.
"We need to see what Clinton wants to propose," said Verdier. "Right now, the questions are legion, and the answers are nowhere."
The general trend in bank legislation has not been favorable for bankers.
In 1991, the Bush administration proposed repealing Glass-Steagall, thereby allowing banks and securities firms to affiliate. The administration also urged relaxation of the Bank Holding Company Act of 1956, allowing commercial firms, such as retailers and manufacturers, to own banks; a loosening of restrictions on bank insurance activities; and opening up the nation to interstate branching by banks.
The Bush plan emerged from the House Banking Committee at the end of last June with most of its key features intact. But then the Senate Banking Committee and House Energy and Commerce Committee diluted the package, and it died on the House floor in November 1991. In its place, lawmakers approved stringent restrictions and reporting requirements on banks designed to protect the then-foundering Bank Insurance Fund.
Soured by that experience, and with a wary eye on the changing of the political guard in Congress and at the White House, bank lobbyists said the only thing they can say with certainty is that they face continued uncertainty.
One lobbyist said the last time more than 100 new lawmakers entered Congress was in 1948, when Harry Truman retained the presidency.
"At that time, you had uncertainty on Capitol Hill, but not downtown, because Truman stayed in the White House," the lobbyist said. "But now, you have uncertainty on the Hill and downtown. "
"Uncertainty is the byword, with a generalized hope that things will turn out okay," another lobbyist said.