The thrift charter was much discussed this week as 2,000 industry executives gathered here for the annual convention of America's Community Bankers.

John F. Downey, the Office of Thrift Supervision's executive director of supervision, encouraged the thrift trade group's members to fight to preserve their charter next year when Congress considers reform.

"Be aware of what you have and what you may be giving up," he said Tuesday. "Thrifts now have close to an ideal community bank charter - lending flexibility comparable to banks, and greater affiliation and branching powers."

Congress is expected to consider melding the bank and thrift charters next year. But Mr. Downey said thrifts got most of what they need in this year's insurance fund rescue law, including:

*Commercial lending authority was doubled to 20% of total lending.

*Credit card and student loans count toward the qualified thrift lender test, without limit.

*Tax liability for bad-debt reserves was eliminated.

"With these recent reforms, federal thrifts can remain a major provider of housing finance and are in a position to originate the same amount of consumer and small-business loans as the typical commercial bank does today," Mr. Downey said.

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Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Chairman Ricki Helfer weighed in on the issue Monday, endorsing a broader charter for banks. But she also issued a warning: Banks should continue traditional activities - serving depositors and lending to communities.

"If the new charter includes a significant expansion of new activities, it raises the possibility that insured institutions might move away from providing traditional banking services," Ms. Helfer said. "As part of our effort to design a new bank charter, we have to consider the potential effect on small communities, isolated markets, and existing bank customers."

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Although preserving thrift powers is the top priority in 1997, incoming America's Community Bankers chairman C. William Landefeld said the industry faces a long list of other legislative issues.

Other top items include modernizing the Federal Home Loan Bank System and campaigning for taxation of credit unions. "It's time to bring credit unions into the full family of financial services," he said.

Also on his agenda:

*Pressing Congress to allow institutions an extra day to clear local checks.

*Eliminating the liquidity requirement for thrifts.

*Eliminating restrictions on investments in community development organizations.

*Earning Community Reinvestment Act credit for participating in community loan programs outside an institution's geographic area.

*Simplifying branch, merger, and other applications for small and well- performing banks.

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