In addition to solving individual banker's complaints, the Comptroller of the Currency's ombudsman has been making changes in the agency's regulatory policy.

Samuel P. Golden says he has converted some of the solutions to bankers' regulatory problems into broad improvements at the regulatory agency.

"We serve as a catalyst," Mr. Golden said in an interview. "We want to get things resolved before appeals are filed."

For example, the OCC has decided that an isolated fair-lending violation does not automatically condemn a bank to a low rating under the Community Reinvestment Act. This is a complete turnaround from previous policy.

That decision came after Mr. Golden received an appeal from a bank that had admittedly discriminated against two people. Examiners found no other fair-lending violations, and the bank compensated the individuals involved.

The bank argued that because the violations were isolated, its CRA rating should not be downgraded. Even though agency policy said otherwise, Mr. Golden agreed with the bank. The bank's rating was changed from "needs to improve" to "satisfactory."

All compliance examiners were immediately notified of the new policy by electronic bulletin board, Mr. Golden said.

"These cookie-cutter rules should be thrown into the garbage can," he said.

The OCC also is making some changes - based on the ombudsman's findings - in 1991 guidelines on bank sales of life insurance policies.

The problem, Mr. Golden said, is that the guidelines conflict with plans banks have had in place for years. In particular, banks complained that they should not have to make complicated calculations to prove they aren't making too much money from offering the policies, he said.

"Many bank plans didn't comply with the standards after the fact," Mr. Golden said. "You can imagine how that infuriated bankers."

Though he would not give specifics, Mr. Golden said the Comptroller's office will come out with new, less stringent guidelines within the next month.

Mr. Golden also is contributing to an interagency task force that is weighing how much capital a bank should have to hold against assets sold with recourse.

After receiving three appeals on recourse issues, Mr. Golden said regulators need to rework capital mandates. Banks should be given more slack where there is limited risk, such as in mortgage lending, he said.

"If long-term experience shows you that the risk of default is zero, it's punitive for banks to maintain huge amounts of capital assets," Mr. Golden said.

Finally, Mr. Golden asked Jimmy Barton, the chief national bank examiner to define "independence" as it relates to appraisals such as collateral evaluations and loan reviews.

The problem, Mr. Golden said, is that while banks are told to have independent appraisers, no one really knows what that means.

There is a question whether internal appraisers are independent. It depends, he said, where they report. If, for example, the chief lending officer is also the head of the appraisal division, that's a clear conflict of interest. "It's like mixing fire and gasoline," Mr. Golden said.

In his first 20 months, Mr. Golden has addressed a total of 81 appeals, with 63% of decisions favoring the bank. Mr. Golden also resolves dozens of would-be appeals before they get to the formal process.

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