Bankers are charging customers more than ever before to use automated teller machines, figures from the American Bankers Association confirm.

But it still isn't clear whether the rising ATM charges are helping to bolster bank profitability.

According to the ABA's annual retail banking study, the average fee for a demand deposit withdrawal through an ATM is 30 cents when the ATM is owned by the customer's bank and $1 when the transaction originates at another bank's machine.

Two years ago, banks were charging about 27 cents and 85 cents respectively for these transactions. In 1986, fees were even lower: 20 cents for an "onus" withdrawal and 62 cents for an interchange withdrawal.

Charges for other transactions, such as balance inquiries, have also risen.

Experts said consumer surveys have long indicated that bank customers are willing to pay up to a dollar for the services delivered by automated banking machines.

Cost-Cutting Device

However, bankers historically have viewed the ATM as a means for cutting branch operating costs rather than as a source of revenue.

According to the Mentis Corp., Salisbury, Md., the operational cost of an ATM transaction averages between 30 cents and 50 cents, depending on whether the ATM is a bankowned machine or a shared terminal.

By contrast, a transaction handled by a live teller has an average cost of $1.06.

These figures, considered with other indirectly related savings such as branch closings and teller staff reduction, continue to convince many bankers that ATMs still function best as delivery mechanisms rather than sources of revenue.

Is It Appropriate?

"I'm not sure that it's appropriate to look at ATMs as profit generators," said Gary Roboff, a vice president at Chemical Banking Corp., which owns about 1,000 ATMs. "When you do a [live] teller transaction do, you ask what kind of money it's earning?"

However, as Mr. Roboff acknowledges, reducing operational costs is not as simple as getting customers to do their basic banking on ATMs rather than at the teller window.

Customers who might withdraw $200 in one transaction with a teller are likely to make three or four separate withdrawals to get the same amount of money through ATMs.

Within electronic banking circles, the phenomenon of the ATM generating its own transactions is not news.

A Warming Trend

But observers said the fact that ATM transaction fees are rising indicates that an increasing number of institutions are warming to the idea of profiting from their electronic banking devices.

Observers said that the rising ATM charges are part of the banking industry's response to sagging lending income, and many predict that fees will rise even further in the next few years.

"It is an established fact that people are willing to pay for an interchange transaction," said Catherine Cond, president of CBond & Co., Hartford, Conn. "Bankers are now saying, |At the very least, let's recover our out-of-pocket expense for this,' and I take that as a good sign."

However, few bankers are willing to talk about whether the strategy is paying off, and experts said it may be several years before the bottom line effect of these higher fees is made public.

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