The Utah Bankers Association kicked off its 90th annual convention Monday as some 400 members of Utah's financial community gathered to try and make sense of the upheavals their industry is currently undergoing and get a picture of where it's headed as it moves into the next millennium.
"This is the largest attendance we've had in a decade and that's no accident," said Howard M. Head-lee, UBA president. "This is a high-stakes time in the history of our industry. I think we'll look back years from now and realize that the 1990s was a decade of major transition for banking."Those who will try to help the bankers get a handle on their future during the three-day convention include Sen. Bob Bennett, R-Utah; William T. McConnell, president of the American Bankers Association; Ed Leary, Utah commissioner of financial institutions; Hyrum Smith, chairman of Franklin Covey; and a group of Utah economists.
Three pieces of legislation currently making their way through Congress will have a big impact on the future of banking not only in Utah but across the nation. All have been passed out of the House of Representatives and are currently in the Senate.
"From a banker's standpoint, this combination of issues - expanding the reach of credit unions and enlarging the ability of insurance, securities and commercial firms to get into banking - is squeezing us from every direction," said Headlee.
"It's a serious threat to banking as we know it and that's why a lot of people are here at Sun Valley."
The issue of the credit unions and what the banks see as their unfair, tax-exempt status remains high on the bankers' radar scopes. HR1151, legislation dealing with the structure and authority of credit unions, has been reported out of committee and still needs to go to the floor of the Senate. That's where the banking industry hopes the "major flaws" in the bill will become apparent.
Headlee said bankers are still concerned with the tax-exempt status of the credit unions but even more so with a provision in the bill to authorize some forms of commercial lending for the credit unions that the bankers feels needs to be regulated.
"That's a different business, and a much riskier one, than what they've been doing," which is basically serving consumers, said Headlee.
National regulators have said that a commercial loan smaller than $50,000 can be treated just like a consumer loan. That's unwise, said Headlee because commercial loans are much riskier than consumer loans.
HR10, the historic modernization of the nation's banking laws that date back to the 1930s, is now in Senate hearings. Headlee said the major concern of bankers with that bill is the lack of limits it places on thrift institutions, formerly called savings and loans - a term now tainted by the S&L collapse and subsequent bailout in the late 1980s.
Headlee said bankers are somewhat bitter over the fact that banks are still making payments on bonds issued for the bailout. "We bailed out their insurance fund and now they're popular again."
So popular that many large insurance, securities and commercial companies are buying up thrift holding companies so they can get involved in banking while remaining engaged in their other commercial activities such as making and selling automobiles or computer software.
What's wrong with that? Nothing, except that banks, by law, can't do it. "It's a loophole where commercial companies can buy a thrift and engage in banking without any regulation," said Headlee.
Microsoft or Ford Motor Co., for example, can buy a bank and still sell software or cars, but Zions Bank can't buy a software company or sell cars. "It's an unlevel playing field," says Headlee.
The third major issue on the bankers' minds right now is bankruptcy reform, an area in which they are most likely to bet what they want: a means-test that would look at a person's ability to pay more on their debts rather than allowing bankrupts unfettered relief from their obligations.
That bill has passed the House and appears ready to pass in the Senate, said Headlee.