Md. commissioner takes on big bankers

BATTLE OVER BANK BRANCHING

January 04, 1993|By David Conn | David Conn,Staff Writer

Back in 1983, the year she became Maryland's bank commissioner, Margie H. Muller described herself as a typical "Type A" personality. "I suppose another word for it would be orderly," she said. "I like things put together and tied up."

That's probably why her large desk is remarkably spotless in the middle of a sparse office in the Department of Licensing and Regulation's St. Paul Place building (that, and a desire to look good for the photographer).

But as she begins her 10th year in office -- more than any Maryland bank commissioner but one -- Ms. Muller has identified storm cloud that she believes threatens the orderliness that all regulators strive to maintain. It also threatens the state's ability to oversee its banks effectively, Ms. Muller warns, and in fact the viability of the dual federal and state banking system that has existed for generations.

The threat is national interstate bank branching. And her opposition to it has placed Ms. Muller in battle against some of the most important bankers in the nation, most notably NationsBank Corp. Chairman Hugh McColl.

"Interstate branching takes us out of control of the institution in all ways," Ms. Muller says. "It is not as innocent as it sounds."

Still, some believe Ms. Muller's realm isn't much worth defending.

The 75 state-chartered banks for which the bank commissioner is the primary regulator are all insured and co-regulated by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Although her office was given oversight for the non-federally chartered credit unions, all state savings and loans were forced to obtain federal charters years ago.

"I don't have anything against Margie," says state Sen. Thomas P. O'Reilly, D-Prince George's, and chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. But "I have always questioned why we're spending a lot of state dollars to determine whether our institutions are solvent, when the feds are doing the same thing.

"I think that that whole institution is somewhat of a dinosaur," he says.

Actually, the office is a net revenue producer for the state, because of the fees from bank examinations. In fiscal 1992, which ended in June, it took in $2.3 million, about the same as the year before, but spent only $506,360.

Ms. Muller argues that the office is necessary for several reasons. For one, almost half of last year's examinations were conducted by the state alone; the results were shared with the federal regulators.

Further, Maryland consumers and business people who have problems with a Maryland bank are unlikely to get any satisfaction from a bureaucracy the size of the FDIC, Ms. Muller maintains, or the Comptroller of the Currency, which regulates nationally chartered banks, such as Maryland National and First National Bank of Maryland. She says part of her staff's time is spent pursuing complaints against banks for failing to make loans or treating customers poorly.

Finally, she points to the role of state-chartered banks, and their regulators, as a laboratory for new products and services. For instance, when banks in Massachusetts launched the NOW account a decade ago, national banks had to wait until it reached the radar screens of Congress and the federal regulators.

In Maryland, Ms. Muller says she allowed a Virginia bank with a subsidiary in Maryland to accept deposits in one state and pass them on to the sister bank in the other state. National banks were unable to do the same thing until their regulators approved it later.

Generally, Ms. Muller says she has no problems with interstate banking. But she warns that interstate branching could be harmful for Maryland. The state could lose millions in tax revenues, for example, if Congress fails to protect the states with a large number of subsidiary banks that would be converted into branches of out-of-state companies, she notes.

In some ways, it's fitting that one of the last major issues Ms. Muller is likely to face before a new governor has the option to replace her is interstate banking. It was among the first issues she had to tackle a decade ago when she left a 23-year career in banking to become a regulator.

A Los Angeles native, Ms. Muller graduated in 1949 from the University of California at Los Angeles with an English major (some of her essays graced the pages of The Sun and The Evening Sun in the 1970s). It was at UCLA that she met her future husband, Steven Muller, the former president of Johns Hopkins University.

The two spent the next 10 years traveling: first to London, where he was a Rhodes scholar and she a fashion company executive; then to Ithaca, N.Y., New York City, Haverford, Pa., and back to Ithaca, all in pursuit of Mr. Muller's academic career.

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