WASHINGTON - Federal regulators assured House lawmakers on Tuesday that the recent wave of bank megamergers will not limit consumers' access to retail banking services.

Federal Reserve Board Governor Janet L. Yellen told the House Banking Committee's financial institutions subcommittee that while bank mergers often lead to branch closings, lifting interstate branching restrictions will coax other banks to open branches in their place.

"If merging banks should close branches, the opening of branches by existing competitors or by new entrants to the market is likely to occur as new profit opportunities arise," Ms. Yellen said.

Rep. Marge Roukema, subcommittee chairwoman, opened the hearing by saying, "Recent media attention on diminishing consumer access to basic banking services resulting from these mergers has propelled this issue into the limelight."

While interstate banking kicked in last month, the 1994 Riegle-Neal Interstate Banking and Branching Efficiency Act gives states until June 1, 1997, to decide whether to opt in or out of interstate branching.

So far, 13 states are open for interstate branching, while five others have voted to allow it by the deadline.

And despite the decline in the number of banks and thrifts over the last decade - from 17,886 in 1984 to 12,249 as of last June - the number of deposit-taking offices increased, from about 81,000 to 83,000, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

"The fact that the number of banking offices is not much different than it was 11 years ago is an indication that access to banking offices has not been curtailed," said FDIC Chairman Ricki Helfer.

However, the recent surge in big-bank mergers, such as the massive $10 billion deal struck in August between Chemical Banking Corp. and Chase Manhattan Corp., may increase the risk to taxpayers, according to Joseph S. Bracewell, chairman of Century National Bank in Washington, D.C.

"Ultimately, the taxpayer remains at risk when the FDIC, the Federal Reserve, and the Treasury authorize the bailout of an institution whose failure would present a systemic risk to the economy or the financial system," said Mr. Bracewell, who testified on behalf of the Independent Bankers Association of America.

"Too-big-to-fail institutions also carry de facto 100% deposit insurance, which puts community banks at a competitive disadvantage," Mr. Bracewell asserted.

However, Ms. Helfer argued that community banks will continue to be competitive with large institutions because "they can take advantage of the opportunity to serve particular credit needs or particular markets."

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