American Express

(AXP) - Get Report

on Monday became the latest nonbank lender to become a bank holding company, but significant barriers make such a move difficult for other members of this unhappy fraternity.

Becoming a bank holding company allows

American Express

to tap sources of capital it could not have before.

Despite the well-documented troubles in the banking sector, the picture is even worse for the small number of companies that lend but are not commercial banks. That's because unlike banks, which have deposits as a stable source of funds, other lenders are heavily reliant on issuing debt or equity, which is nearly impossible and extremely expensive at the moment, given the jittery state of the markets.

Three of the largest nonbank lenders

Morgan Stanley

(MS) - Get Report

,

Merrill Lynch

(MER)

and

Goldman Sachs

(GS) - Get Report

, became bank holding companies in September. Merrill will be acquired by

Bank of America

(BAC) - Get Report

in the first quarter of 2009.

Among the remaining nonbank lenders,

General Motors'

(GM) - Get Report

financing affiliate GMAC has applied for bank status, while commercial finance company

CIT Group

(CIT) - Get Report

also appears to be seriously considering such a move. Calls to a CIT spokesman were not returned.

Other lenders, such as GE Capital, the commercial-lending arm of

General Electric

(GE) - Get Report

,

Ford

(F) - Get Report

financing unit Ford Motor Credit, and

Textron

(TXT) - Get Report

subsidiary Textron Financial, would have to be spun off or granted regulatory waivers, since they are owned by nonbanks.

GMAC, a majority of which is owned by private equity firm

Cerberus Capital

, is currently trying to sort through this issue. If Cerberus succeeds, it could provide a model for the others. For the moment, however, GE Capital and Ford Motor Credit say they do not intend to seek bank holding company status.

"We have no current plans to become a bank holding company. We continually evaluate the company's strategy to ensure it's best-positioned to compete and perform successfully in the near and long term," writes GE spokesman Russell Wilkerson in an email message.

Ford Motor Credit spokeswoman Meredith Libbey says becoming a bank holding company would change the company's relationship with its parent. "Our whole mission is to put people behind the wheels of Ford Motor Co. vehicles, and we can do that better as a wholly owned captive," she says.

A call to a Textron representative was not returned.

Among standalone lenders, bank holding company status would not make sense for student-loan provider

Salle Mae

(SLM) - Get Report

or

AmeriCredit

(ACF)

, according to

Fitch Ratings

analyst Meghan Crowe.

She says Sallie Mae would be subject to capital requirements that would be a drag on earnings, while AmeriCredit, unlike the lenders that have successfully applied for bank holding company status, has no deposits and is subject to very different capital requirements than it would face as a bank.

"That would not be an easy transition at all," she says.

The lenders that can't solve their problems by becoming banks will have to articulate a funding plan to shareholders in hurry, says Fitch analyst Christopher Wolfe.

"If you currently don't have full advantage of all the federal loan facilities and protections that are out there, what are you doing?" Wolfe says.