WASHINGTON - In a sudden about-face, the Clinton administration has decided to compromise with Congress on a major issue blocking the possible consolidation of the four federal bank and thrift agencies Administration sources s id Monday that they are willing to change a position voiced last month that the executive branch should have some control over a proposed superregulator.

Need for Reform Agreed

There is widespread consensus that the current regulatory scheme needs reform. With four separate agencies, it is considered cumbersome, expensive, and confusing.

But past moves to consolidate have been thwarted in part by disagreements between those who favor an independent agency and those who believe the President must exercise control because banks are so important to the economy.

According to administration sources, the Treasury Department is willing to build the new agency along the lines of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

That would mean a five-member board with two members selected from the private sector, two members representing the administration, and a chairman nominated by the President.

Treasury Under Secretary Frank Newman had been expected to deliver the administration's new position today at a hearing of the Senate Banking Committee.

But Congress was rushing to adjourn, so the hearing will probably be rescheduled for February.

Whether the administration's compromise will satisfy committee Chairman Donald W. Riegle is uncertain. The Michigan Democrat was out of town Monday, and his aides would not comment.

But Sen. Riegle introduced legislation this month to create a Federal Banking Commission, also with a five-member board.

Under the bill, Treasury would get one seat, the Federal Reserve would get another, and the President would select the remaining three representatives from the private sector.

The legislation would consolidate regulation and supervision.

The Fed would continue to exist, but it would focus on monetary policy. The FDIC also would remain as the system's insurer.

Under Ronald Reagan and George Bush, the executive branch insisted that it retain control over any combined agency.

The legislative branch has demanded that the new agency be free from political control.

Bentsen Statement

The Clinton administration's only official comments so far on regulatory consolidation came Oct. 25, when Treasury Secretary Lloyd Bentsen endorsed a merger of the agencies.

But he added that the combined agency should "remain responsive to the electorate." That was interpreted as opposition to any legislation that stripped banking policy from the Treasury's control.

The Clinton administration also wants to make government work better. Vice President Al Gore, the author of the administration's report on reinventing government, reportedly is keenly interested in consolidating the banking agencies.

Spar Seen to Lending

Merging them makes sense for this adiministration for another reason.

President Clinton wants to spur the economy by coaxing banks to make more loans; streamlining regulation is popularly believed to be one way to spur bank lending.

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