WASHINGTON - The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has taken the interstate banking crusade into the trust business.
In a potentially controversial interpretive letter, the agency lowered barriers discouraging national banks from providing trust services outside their home states. The institutions can now ignore state laws requiring that trust banks be based in those states.
What's more, national banks do not have to apply for special permits if state-chartered banks are exempt from them.
Legal experts said some states are likely to contest what they will interpret as the latest federal incursion on their regulatory turf, but the Comptroller's office claims it is merely leveling another playing field.
"We're simply saying that national banks that want to provide fiduciary services in a particular state need to be treated the same as competing fiduciary service providers in that state," said Julie Williams, the Comptroller's chief counsel and author of the letter.
Some bankers had complained that the common state regulatory requirement - that trust departments have in-state headquarters or obtain a special exemption - perpetuated inefficiency and prevented sensible consolidations.
While national banks' trust executives may be applauding, the Comptroller's initiative may face legal challenges.
"This will undoubtedly be litigated," said David Roderer, a partner at Winston & Strawn in Washington. "Trust services always have been viewed as an area of local concern, and this seems to suggest it will no longer be necessary to abide by those rules."
A challenge could be based on the Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act of 1994, which gives states authority over consumer protection matters.
"Any time you're talking about trust services, it raises major consumer protection issues, and that's an area where Riegle-Neal defers explicitly to the states," said Ellen Lamb, vice president at the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, which represents the state regulators.
Yet Mr. Roderer said the OCC's interpretive letter, dated Dec. 8, appears legally sound.
The opinion was a response to an Aug. 28 inquiry from Banc One Corp. The Columbus, Ohio, superregional asked if it could centralize its 11-state trust operation under a single national bank charter.
Steven Bennett, Banc One's senior vice president and general counsel, told the Comptroller's office that existing state rules made it tough to consolidate administration and management of the trust department.
Banc One spokesman John A. Russell said the company has not yet developed a plan to take advantage of the ruling. But he praised the decision, saying "the opportunity is important."
This is not the first time state regulators and the Comptroller have clashed over the power of the national bank charter.
The federal agency is currently being sued by Texas Banking Commissioner Catherine A. Ghiglieri to keep national banks from going interstate using a loophole in the National Bank Act known as the 30-mile rule, which involves relocating a bank's headquarters.
The national bank regulator also has drawn fire from the states for letting national banks sell insurance regardless of state prohibitions.