The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency appears to be backing away from a controversial policy allowing national banks to exercise powers now available only to state-chartered institutions.
In a ruling released Tuesday, the agency gave Metrobank of East Moline, Ill., permission to convert to a national charter and then relocate its headquarters to Davenport, Iowa.
The $236 million-asset institution, however, must divest its travel agency operation within two years. Illinois allows its banks to operate travel agencies, but Iowa and federal law prohibit this activity.
The decision is at odds with an order last year involving Magna Bank of Missouri. In that case, the Comptroller's Office said banks may keep "nonconforming assets" when they switch charters. For Magna, that meant it could maintain a statewide network of insurance agencies, though federal law limits bank insurance sales to small towns.
The Metrobank decision, however, requires the bank to sell the travel agency unless Congress changes the law or the comptroller rules that travel services are permitted under the bank act.
A House Banking Committee official said the OCC has retreated from its Magna decision, which was harshly criticized by Rep. Jim Leach, R-Iowa. "This appears to be standard operating procedure in contrast to the Magna decision which allowed activities to continue open-ended," the official said.
"This is a step back from Magna," agreed David W. Roderer, a partner at the Washington law firm of Goodwin, Procter & Hoar. "But it is not a big one because this is a single office that doesn't make a significant impact on the bank's bottom line."
But Mr. Roderer said the decision may not be all bad. The comptroller said he would reconsider the travel agency decision if Iowa changes its law to permit bank ownership of these offices. Mr. Roderer said this may lay the groundwork for a future ruling allowing national banks to engage in any activity permitted for state banks.
"That would create a national bank wild card, which does not currently exist," he said. "That would be significant for national banks overall."
OCC Chief Counsel Julie L. Williams declined to comment on whether the agency was changing its position. But she played down the importance of the ruling.
"The bank is being given a two-year period to either divest or get the holding into conformity with applicable law," she said. "This is very common for us in dealing with situations where there is an investment or holding that is a nonconforming asset."