The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency has agreed to charter the first virtual national bank.

Houston-based CompuBank will offer deposit products and electronic bill payment over the phone or through customers' personal computers, according to an Aug. 20 order released Thursday.

"I'm ecstatic," said Frank S. Goldberg, CompuBank's chief executive. "We expect to cut huge amounts of overhead and infrastructure out of a typical banking configuration and pass those savings on to customers."

Although the bank initially will not operate over the Internet, it is likely to add that service soon, Mr. Goldberg said. Low operating costs will allow CompuBank to offer free checking, monthly bill payments, on-line connection, and automated teller machine access, Mr. Goldberg said.

He expects the bank to begin operations by Feb. 1.

CompuBank will be the third virtual institution, but the first with a national charter. Security First Network Bank and Atlanta Internet Bank hold thrift charters.

At least initially, CompuBank will not make loans, Mr. Goldberg said.

"It is possible, because of savings on overhead, to operate with a very respectable spread without credit products," said Mr. Goldberg, who is the former chairman, chief executive, and president of Security Bank, Houston. The $75 million-asset institution was acquired by Compass Bank-Houston in May 1994.

The Comptroller's Office took a year to decide whether to charter CompuBank. Mark L. O'Dell, the agency's director for bank technology, said the application took a long time to process because it was unique.

"This application really is not a very traditional mix of risks that we would typically see in our banks," Mr. O'Dell said. "We took our time to make sure we understood the business plan and how that impacted the risk profile."

Because CompuBank will offer no loans, it will have no credit risk. But delivering products electronically poses substantial transactional risk, Mr. O'Dell said.

Before CompuBank may open for business, it must convince the comptroller that its computer systems are secure. For example, the bank must hire outside security specialists to attempt to break into its system. Regulators also will conduct an exam before opening, Mr. O'Dell said.

Though no similar applications are pending at the OCC, Mr. O'Dell said he expects more in the coming months.

"There have been inquiries, and we have been informally talking with people," he said.

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