Georgia leads a move toward Southern regional banking

Georgia has arrived at the dance, but it hasn't found a partner yet. Its legislature has enacted a bill to let bank holding companies from within a defined 10-state Southern region buy or merge with their Georgia counterparts. But the regional interstate banking party won't start until another Southern legislature passes a reciprocal law, allowing Georgia institutions into its territory.

But wait a minute, you say, don't we already have interstate banking? There are out-of-state banks, foreign banks even, right downtown in my city. What about all those letters I've been getting from South Dakota, offering pre-approved credit cards? And didn't that nice woman at the bank say my automatic teller card could get me cash at zillions of locations all over the country?

It's just this sort of confusion that has Southern bankers eager to proceed with de jure, rather than just de facto, interstate banking. A number of bank services already cross state lines. But banks are still forbidden, in theory, to accept out-of-state deposits or own more than 5 percent of the stock of an out-of-state bank.

So Southern bankers argue that the megabanks in New York, Chicago, San Francisco, and elsewhere already have interstate banking by loophole; let's do it by statute, within our own region, they urge.

''Eventually we will go to national (interstate) banking. But we have to crawl before we can walk,'' says Jimmy Lester, chairman of the state Senate's banking committee.

The new banking bill, widely expected to be signed by Gov. Joe Frank Harris, ''will allow the influx of additional capital to the state of Georgia,'' Senator Lester says. ''If Coca-Cola wants to borrow $100 million to buy another motion picture studio, they have to go out of state for the money, or arrange for a syndicated loan.''

It is significant that he describes the legislation first as a means of aiding Georgia business, and secondarily as a way to help Georgia banks grow. In an afternoon of interviews all over the Capitol, this correspondent was told again and again, ''This is an economic-development issue, not a banking issue.''

But part of the rationale for regional interstate banking, an idea recommended last summer by the Southern Growth Policies Board in Raleigh, N.C., has been to create a breathing space for Southern banks, to allow them to become real regional powers before the whole country opens up to national banking across state lines - a development seen as inevitable.

Says Georgia Banking Commissioner Jack Dunn, ''Our part of the country needs to strengthen and enlarge its large banks.''

''This region does not have major nationally competitive banks,'' says Joe Martin, senior vice-president of NCNB Corporation in Charlotte, the biggest bank holding company in North Carolina and the only Southeastern bank to squeak onto last year's list of the top 25 US bank holding companies - albeit in last place. (Despite Atlanta's dominance as hub of the Southeast, Charlotte is actually more of a financial center; credit for this is ascribed to North Carolina's policy from the start of statewide branching - something Georgia still lacks.)

In his office at Five Points, the hub of Atlanta, Paul D. Hill, chief financial officer of the First Atlanta Corporation, one of the state's largest bank holding companies, says, ''We feel the regional concept has merit on its own, and as a step on the way to national interstate banking.

''Size offers some competitive advantages; without this legislation there are real risks that regional banks might disappear.'' The new bill ''will allow First Atlanta to grow and compete with money center banks. It will be a real opportunity for business, especially for the larger companies, because the Southeastern institutions will be big enough to meet their needs, instead of their having to go to New York or Chicago.''

Across the street, in the turn-of-the-century classical Italian headquarters of the Citizens and Southern National Bank, Lee M. Sessions Jr., senior vice-president, predicts that ''primarily what we think we'd be looking at'' under the new legislation is ''mergers of equals,'' rather than wholesale acquisitions of small banks by bigger ones. He reasons that a nationally competitive bank is more likely to come from the merger of two good-size regionals than from the acquisition of a stream of little banks by a single regional.

He defends the regional concept, which he helped develop as a member of the banking committee of the Southern Growth Policies Board, on grounds that it ''is a logical next step in the deregulatory process. . . . Congress is unwilling to address nationwide interstate banking,'' which, he adds, ''is probably not practical nor political reality at the moment.''

The constitutional question of legislation that in effect creates a separate trade zone for certain states seems not to trouble anyone in Atlanta.

Mr. Hill says, ''I think the question has been thoroughly researched by a number of competent lawyers, and the concept has been found to be valid.'' He compares the bill to a zoning ordinance that reflects a city's ''legitimate interest'' in limiting development.

But Citicorp has filed suit to block a similar regional banking compact in New England, and has promised to sue to block any such compact lacking a ''national trigger'' opening a region nationwide after a few years.

''We felt if it was a good idea, we should do it now,'' counters Senator Lester.

Frank Pinkston, chairman of the House banking committee, who introduced the bill at the governor's request, concurs: ''There's a great deal to be said for being first.''

''We had a chance to be first,'' says Lester; ''other states would model their bills on ours; we'd be in the driver's seat.''

Regional banking has been a concept dear to the heart of Florida Gov. Bob Graham, and there are optimistic projections that Florida will pass a reciprocal bill to Georgia's during the legislative session that begins next month. Joel R. Wells Jr., president and chief executive officer of Sun Banks in Orlando, and chairman of Governor Graham's banking task force, rates chances of passage as ''very high,'' noting the ''momentum'' generated by the passage of the Georgia bill.

North Carolina is also seen as likely to pass a reciprocal law, but its legislature will not be able to take up the issue this year except on an ''emergency'' basis.

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