WASHINGTON — After an eight-year fight that seemed ripe to continue in perpetuity, the battle for banks to engage in real estate brokerage ended quietly Tuesday, with bankers conceding defeat and the National Association of Realtors largely refusing to discuss the matter.
In these days of financial crisis, it is hard to remember a time when this issue was anything other than a footnote, but as recently as a few years ago it was the subject of congressional hearings and fierce accusations on both sides.
But by Tuesday, Congress was poised to pass an appropriations bill that would permanently ban the Treasury Department and Federal Reserve Board from finalizing a 2000 proposal to let banks into the brokerage business.
The American Bankers Association, which had led the crusade against the provision for years and had succeeded in changing it to a series of one-year delays, acknowledged that it had given up.
"It just wasn't important to bankers, and we had many other fish to fry," said Ed Yingling, the trade group's president. "We had strung the issue out for several years just using lobbying tactics without engaging our grass roots at all. It was no longer on our priority list."
But if real estate agents are gloating, they are doing so privately. Though they had sent out hundreds of thousands of letters over the issue for several years, making it their top priority, a spokeswoman for the realty group would say only that the ban was a win for consumers.
"NAR believes it is a victory for consumers in protecting the separation of banking and commerce and maintaining a competitive real estate environment," she said.
In the past both sides saw the issue as symbolic of a larger struggle. For bankers, it was the first test of a provision of the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act that allowed the Treasury and the Fed to determine jointly whether certain activities were "financial in nature" and thus eligible for bank participation.
In late 2000 both agencies offered a proposal that would have allowed national banks to engage in real estate brokerage. (Roughly two dozen states let state-chartered institutions engage in brokerage.) The proposal, hailed by the banking industry, appeared headed for quick finalization. But almost as soon as the Bush administration took office in 2001, the real estate agents jumped on the proposal, arguing that it would allow a handful of large banking companies to take over the real estate business.
The realty group, which had more sway in Congress than the ABA did, forced hearings on the issue, with a Fed governor called to Capitol Hill to defend the plan.
Even after the Sept. 11 attacks forced more pressing issues to the fore, the trade groups continued to trade blows. In 2002, at a cost of roughly $5 per letter, the ABA hired a company to deliver about 38,000 letters to lawmakers calling on them to let regulators finalize the rule. (Direct mail access on Capitol Hill was restricted after anthrax spores were mailed to a Senate office building.) The realty group delivered a CD-ROM with about 35,000 letters to the White House on the issue.
But every year since 2001 ended the same. The realty group persuaded Congress to enact a one-year ban but could not get a permanent ban passed until this year.
Industry observers said it made sense for the ABA to give up, especially given the pressing problems of today.
"As the mood shifted, the efforts of banks to defend this — and the degree of political capital the industry is using on everything else — left them unwilling to fight on this political loser," said Karen Shaw Petrou, managing partner of Federal Financial Analytics Inc.
Looking back, Yingling acknowledged that relatively few bankers were ever interested in having brokerage powers, but he said the trade group saw the issue as a critical test.
"We did not have a lot of bankers clamoring to get into the business immediately, but we applied to have that option in the future," he said. "To us, it was more a matter of principle that Gramm-Leach-Bliley was intended to give regulators the authority to make these decisions, and it shouldn't have been taken back to Congress."
What will happen the next time bankers ask for an activity to be declared financial in nature? Yingling said he hopes the passions stirred by the real estate issue will not be reignited.
"We don't like the precedent, but the situation with the Realtors is probably unique," he said.