The Office of the Comptroller of the Currency missed statutory deadlines for 30% of its safety-and-soundness exams in 1998.

OCC examiners were required to visit 2,106 national banks last year. But 637 of those examinations were not completed on time, violating the law.

Agency spokesman Robert M. Garsson blamed the problem on year-2000 responsibilities. He said many safety-and-soundness examiners were busy making sure banks are adequately prepared for the Jan. 1, 2000, transition to the new millennium.

Nor were the delays unexpected, he said. Early last year, the agency ordered examiners to focus on banks with Camels ratings of 3, 4, or 5-the worst grades. All those institutions were examined on schedule, he said.

"Y2K is a one-time situation," Mr. Garsson said. "It's not going to last forever."

The Comptroller's Office also lagged on compliance exams. Though deadlines for such exams are a matter of agency policy, not statute, the OCC nevertheless fell short of its own goals in about 30% of those cases, too, Mr. Garsson said.

Year-2000 obligations will continue to cause delays in both safety-and- soundness and compliance exams this year, he said. "Some exams won't be started on time," he said. Mr. Garsson could not say how many exams would be delayed this year or whether the total will be higher or lower than in 1998.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has been plagued by similar problems. This month it said it had done nearly 10% fewer safety-and- soundness exams than required in 1998, largely due to year-2000 burdens and difficulty in filling vacant examiner posts.

The OCC spokesman said hiring more examiners is not a viable option for ending the examination crunch. "You really can't staff up just to deal with Y2K and then staff down again," Mr. Garsson said. "Then we'd be sitting overstaffed next year."

Nevertheless, the OCC is hiring 200 examiners. Of these jobs, Mr. Garsson said, 140 will be filled during the year as people leave. Another 60 specialists-trained in trust powers, technology, and compliance-are also being recruited. The agency currently has 1,925 examiners.

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