WASHINGTON -- The S&L industry may not have the Office of Thrift Supervision to kick around much longer.

The number of thrifts paying assessments to the OTS has been steadily declining since the S&L crisis, so much so that even the young agency sees its days as numbered.

"So long as OTS continues to have a decline in the number of thrifts we supervise ... we are moving to the point that we can't maintain the critical mass" necessary to remain a freestanding agency, said Jonathan L. Fiechter, acting OTS director.

Voluntary Departures

At first, the number dwindled because so many thrifts failed during the savings and loan crisis. But more recently, the decline has been voluntary.

Thrifts, like commercial banks, complain they are so tightly regulated that they have to fill out a government form if they want to blow their nose. That sentiment is particularly strong at thrifts, and many have responded by changing their charters to escape OTS regulation.

If those trends continue, the OTS - which was created in 1989 - will not be able to collect enough from thrifts in assessments and examination fees to support its operations.

At the end of June, there were 1,742 thrifts insured by the FDIC'S Savings Association Insurance Fund, down from 2,013 a year before. Since then, the OTS estimates the number has dropped even further, to 1,720 thrifts.

In the first six months of this year, the OTS lost 117 institutions. Of those, 61 converted to state bank charters, 51 were merged, liquidated, or acquired, and five were sent to the Resolution Trust Corp., according to OTS data.

The Clinton administration is expected in November to release a plan for consolidating the five bank regulatory agencies.

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