Armed with new bank charters, two thrift companies are laying divergent battle plans.

MAF Bancorp, Clarendon Hills, Ill., and First Financial Corp., Stevens Point, Wis., won regulatory approval in late June to set up state savings banks.

The two thrifts went after the bank charters for the same reason: to save money on deposit insurance. Thrifts pay 23 cents for every $100 of domestic deposits while banks pay no premiums. Premium expenses can be shaved by shifting deposits to the bank from the thrift.

However, now that MidAmerica and First Financial have the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s blessing, executives at each thrift are facing a choice. Do they move forward with their new charters, or wait to see whether Congress acts on legislation capitalizing the thrift insurance fund, a move that would eliminate the premium differential?

In interviews this week, executives at MidAmerica and First Financial answered the question differently.

Allen Koranda, chief executive of MAF and its subsidiary Mid America Federal Savings, sees the new state savings bank charter as something to fall back on in case Congress doesn't come through.

"We're looking at this charter as a backup because we still have hope that something may happen in Congress," Mr. Koranda said.

The chief of the $3.1 billion-asset thrift could open a bank office in each of Mid America's 20 thrift offices, but he plans to wait until after Congress adjourns this fall. Mr. Koranda said it would be a waste of time and money to set up bank branches if lawmakers return from their August break and approve legislation to capitalize the Savings Association Insurance Fund.

"Do you want to be in a situation where you are 25% through the process and then Congress passes an SAIF rescue bill?" Mr. Koranda asked. "On top of that, you really don't want to operate two charters in one facility if you don't have to because you're going to be faced with double examination expenses."

However, First Financial president John Seramur was not waiting for action on Capitol Hill.

"This being an election year, it's impossible to predict what Congress is going to do," he said. "Why bother going through all the trouble of applying for this charter if you're not going to move forward as soon as possible?"

Indeed, Mr. Seramur said, First Financial intends to open bank operations in its 129 Illinois and Wisconsin thrift branches as soon as possible.

"Every dollar we get shifted is going to save us the premium difference," he said.

But the $5.5 billion-asset thrift lacks a final go-ahead from state and federal examiners. The regulators want to ensure First Financial has made clear to customers the distinctions between its bank and thrift.

Once the bank operations are up and running, Mr. Seramur said, his institution plans to mail letters to customers offering them cash incentives to shift their deposits to the bank affiliate. In addition, he said, First Financial's bank will offer higher rates on deposits than its thrift does.

At its main office in Stevens Point, Mr. Seramur said, First Financial will either set aside a specially marked area for the bank or operate it in office space next door. At the branches, thrift employees will also work for the new state savings bank affiliate, Mr. Seramur said.

MidAmerica and First Financial were the first two thrifts to get deposit insurance for their state-chartered savings banks. Both institutions waited more than a year for FDIC approval and spent a bundle on legal expenses.

Since then, the agency has granted similar approvals to two other thrifts in Wisconsin: Mutual Savings Bank, Milwaukee, and North Shore Bank, Brookfield. About 10 thrifts have asked the FDIC to insure their new state savings banks under the Bank Insurance .

Separately, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has given national bank charters within the past two months to Great Western Financial Corp., Chatsworth, Calif., and Minneapolis-based TCF Financial Corp. The FDIC has approved deposit insurance for TCF but hasn't acted on Great Western's request.

Four other thrifts, seeking to shift deposits out of the thrift fund, have charter applications pending with the Comptroller's Office.

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