WASHINGTON - The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency is considering a plan to let banks form consortiums to serve poor urban neighborhoods and receive "special" regulatory concessions in return.
Comptroller of the Currency John D. Hawke Jr. revealed the plan Thursday during a question-and-answer session with consumer activists. He said the consortiums would probably be authorized under a new "special purpose" national bank charter.
"I would love to see us put together a pilot project on this," Mr. Hawke told activists at a conference sponsored by the nonprofit Consumer Federation of America.
Under the plan, a consortium of banks would establish facilities at urban locations and extend credit to neighborhood residents and businesses. Each bank in the consortium would contribute capital and staff. In exchange, the jointly owned bank would receive special concessions from the OCC, such as a reduction in required capital.
Mr. Hawke did not say whether individual banks within a consortium would receive Community Reinvestment Act credit for loans made by the consortium. He also cautioned that the plan is in its embryonic stages and could be changed or even scrapped.
But he said the new charter could help address an "enormous problem" in banking: the desertion of banks from poor urban neighborhoods, and the subsequent arrival of payday lenders, check cashers, and other nonbank financial services providers that often charge exorbitant interest rates.
He also acknowledged that the Community Redevelopment Act has not provided sufficient incentive to eliminate inner-city flight. "I certainly don't deny that, and I think that is a major challenge," he told an activist from Oregon.
Much of the rest of Mr. Hawke's presentation focused on consumer privacy provisions in the financial reform law enacted Nov. 12 and on the legality of automated teller machine surcharges.
Though he praised the new law, saying it would save individual and commercial borrowers an estimated $30 million or more per year, Mr. Hawke said the measure's privacy provisions did not go far enough.
He said he was particularly disappointed that the new law did not let customers block banks from sharing their personal information with affiliated companies, calling the approach "shortsighted."
"I don't believe that customers who want their information protected will draw any distinction between affiliates and nonaffiliates," Mr. Hawke said. "Dinner-hour calls from telemarketers are just as annoying coming from either." But he said he was encouraged by a Clinton administration plan to introduce tougher financial privacy legislation early next year.
Mr. Hawke also said that the OCC intends to begin examining more banks for compliance with privacy provisions in the Fair Credit Reporting Act. Until now, regulators could not instigate such an exam unless they had reason, such as from a consumer complaint, to believe a bank was in violation. The new reform law gives the agencies more discretion.
As for attempts by local governments to bar ATM surcharges, Mr. Hawke commended the activists for their good intentions but said banning the fees is misguided and illegal.
"I believe that if these ordinances spread, they will ultimately hurt the very same consumers they were intended to help," he said. "Since the surcharge ban was lifted three years ago by Cirrus and Plus, the banking industry has invested more than $4 billion in new ATMs."
He added that under federal preemption laws, state or local laws banning ATM fees "cannot constitutionally be applied" to national banks.