Eugene A. Ludwig has a simple message for the banking industry: Ask, and you may receive.
According to the comptroller of the currency, responsibility for broadening the range of products and services national banks may offer falls squarely on the industry.
"It's not a question of the OCC expanding the national bank charter," Mr. Ludwig said last week in an interview. "It's up to the banks. They need to ask us for it."
Mr. Ludwig would not elaborate on which specific new products or services he envisions for the national charter. That's a question for the banking industry to answer, he said.
"I'm not out there doing business," he said. But he stressed that unless banks request powers that are too risky, "we can't legally constrain what they can do with the charter."
Mr. Ludwig pointed to four unanimous Supreme Court decisions during the last two years that confirmed the OCC's right to interpret the National Bank Act.
"All of these decisions were clear as a bell in saying that the business of banking is a broad and evolving thing," Mr. Ludwig said. "It is simply any financial activity and anything incidental to a financial activity, provided that it is fundamentally safe.
"These are phenomenal changes, and I am amazed to find how few people realize what the Supreme Court is saying."
Several banking lawyers and consultants agreed that a broad spectrum of new activities is in the cards for national banks. The OCC has already given banks the go-ahead to offer an assortment of new, technology related services.
In July, the agency ruled that national banks may develop computer software and hardware for automated toll booth systems. And last month a bank was given permission to use its excess computer capacity to offer Internet access to the public.
"There's no question that banks are going to take advantage of this environment by pushing hard in the technology area," said Charles M. Horn, partner at Mayer, Brown & Platt.
Robert G. Ballen, a partner with Schwartz & Ballen, predicted that banks soon will seek to sell financial planning services and mutual funds on the Internet.
"It is inevitable that the banks will look to use technology to deliver their less traditional financial services products and services," Mr. Ballen said.
Banks are already making inroads into insurance sales, but additional agency powers could be looming, said Karen Shaw Petrou, president of Washington consulting firm ISD/Shaw Inc.
Ms. Petrou predicted that banks - especially the smaller ones - will ask the OCC for authority to offer travel agency and real estate agency services.
"The real action in expanding the technology fields tends to be confined to the larger banks, but smaller institutions could make enormous use of these agency powers," Ms. Petrou said.
National banks might also request additional direct investment authority, which would allow them to own larger stakes in nonbanking businesses, Ms. Petrou added.
Many observers look to a long-awaited OCC proposal that would allow operating subsidiaries to offer products and services not allowed in the parent as an avenue to new powers.
But Mr. Ludwig downplayed the significance of the so-called "op-sub" proposal. Three of the OCC's Supreme Court victories were handed down after the "op-sub" proposal was issued in November 1994, he noted.
"I think too much is made of it," Mr. Ludwig said. "The Supreme Court cases put the op-sub proposal in perspective."
The op-sub plan is a piece of a larger proposal to streamline corporate applications, which will be finalized by the end of the year, he said.
If national banks step up and request new powers, many state banks will benefit too, Mr. Ludwig said. Under "wild card" laws, state banks gain the same powers awarded to national banks.
"Every time we do something, it is an automatic O.K. for 37 states," he said. "This is about all banks."