WASHINGTON - A Wisconsin thrift has won its three-year battle to break away from the Federal Home Loan Bank System.

Wauwatosa Savings and Loan Association, striking a blow against a long-standing mandatory membership policy, exited the system on April 1, when it received a $3.3 million payment representing its stockholding in the Federal Home Loan Bank of Chicago.

Raymond J. Perry, president and chief executive officer of the $400 million-asset thrift, said the payment arrived without fanfare, and he is not asking any questions. "All I know is that we're out," he said.

Pullout Was Resisted

Wauwatosa took up its crusade when Mr. Perry decided that it could get a better return on the funds tied up in low-yielding home loan bank stock.

As a state-chartered thrift, Mr. Perry argued, Wauwatosa was free to leave - unlike the federally chartered savings institutions that are required by law to belong.

But the Office of Thrift Supervision had maintained that the membership requirement also applied to state-chartered savings and loans.

Fearing massive defections of state thrifts that could harm the home loan banks' ability to provide liquidity for housing finance, regulators resisted Mr. Perry's test case.

The Federal Housing Finance Board, regulator of the home loan bank system, has no concerns about losing the state-chartered S&Ls, a spokesman said. More than half of the system's membership of 3,830 institutions is voluntary.

|We Got Stonewalled'

"Our system's strategic planning efforts support voluntary membership," he said. That approach was spurred by the 1989 thrift-bailout bill, which allowed commercial banks, savings banks, and credit unions to join.

Wauwatosa asked the Chicago home loan bank in September 1989 to be let out of the system, Mr. Perry said. The Chicago bank suggested that such a move could jeopardize the thrift's deposit insurance coverage.

Later that year, Wauwatosa asked the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for a letter confirming that it would not lose deposit insurance if it pulled out.

Mr. Perry said FDIC officials told him that the agency did not oppose the move, but no letter came.

"We got stonewalled for three years with a non-answer," Mr. Perry said.

Withdrew Its Money

Finally, in February, Wauwatosa sent a letter to the FDIC saying that unless it heard otherwise by March 15, the thrift would assume there would be no regulatory consequences if it withdrew from the bank system.

After receiving no word from the FDIC, Wauwatosa sent a letter on March 16 to the Chicago home loan bank asking for its money back after payment of the March 30 dividend, Mr. Perry said. Back came the money.

"I guess if nothing else, it shows that Mr. Smith can go to Washington," Mr. Perry said.

Meanwhile, in Washington, the OTS issued a new rule on March 18 that would allow state-chartered S&Ls to leave the bank system in two years.

Asked why Wauwatosa was allowed to withdraw so soon, an OTS spokesman initially said it was because the two-year rule was not taking effect until April 19.

"It was a question of whether or not they could retain their deposit insurance," the spokesman said.

But when the agency announced the new rule in March, the OTS wrote, "Two years from now the requirement that all state-chartered savings associations must be members of a federal home loan bank will be lifted."

Asked about the discrepancy, a senior OTS official said, "OTS interpreted the law to require that state-chartered thrifts must be [home loan] bank members. We sort of codified our interpretation by passing this rule.

"We don't really need to rely on the opinion anymore because we've got the rule."

Mr. Perry sees it differently: "I think it is kind of funny - what they are saying is you can do two years from now what you can do" already.

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