PHOENIX - Bank of America Corp.'s president called on the financial services industry to establish standards for on-line banking and e-commerce as soon as possible.
Failure to do so could stunt the development of the business, Kenneth D. Lewis said in an address at American Banker's Best Practices in Retail Financial Services Symposium.
In an interview later, Mr. Lewis reaffirmed his belief that Bank of America, unlike some rivals, would hit analysts' profit targets for the first quarter. He also denied that he would be named chief executive officer of the bank at its upcoming annual meetings, as another speaker at the conference predicted.
In his main remarks, on banking and privacy, Mr. Lewis asserted that "a unified approach on fundamental e-commerce issues will be the best for our customers, for the general public, and for ourselves." He added, "We must recognize that the universal adoption of standards benefits all participants in the electronic commerce marketplace."
Trust, the banking industry's most precious resource, is at stake, Mr. Lewis said. "The capital of trust we've justifiably been given over the years is ours to lose," he said. "Let's make sure we keep it."
Mr. Lewis, who is also chief operating officer of the Charlotte, N.C., company, said he hopes one of the large bank trade groups will suggest industrywide standards for privacy and security before Congress steps in and does it for them. Highly publicized hacker attacks on companies such as Yahoo and E-Bay have caught the eyes of regulators and of Congress, he said, and it is only a matter of time before government leaders suggest their own standards for protecting financial data on-line.
"There is no reason we shouldn't be seen as leaders, showing others who transact business on the Internet how to do so responsibly and with the best interests of our customers firmly in mind," he said. "Banks already are trusted in ways that other businesses are not."
The American Bankers Association, the Financial Services Roundtable, and other groups have sounded similar rallying calls, and have sometimes proposed specific industrywide privacy and security standards. Though some of these efforts have met with moderate success - for example, the urging that banks place privacy policies on their Web sites - the general perception among bankers and regulators who follow Internet practices is that more cooperation is needed.
Despite the uncertainties, Mr. Lewis said Bank of America remains convinced that the Internet also offers great opportunities.
"While we might lament the loss of personal contact, we must laud the speed and convenience of today's practices," he said. "Not to mention the increased access to banking products and services they give the ordinary consumer."
After his speech, Mr. Lewis said he is "very confident" Bank of America will meet analyst estimates for the quarter, unlike such big-bank rivals as KeyCorp, First Tennessee National Corp., and Bank One Corp., which have warned of shortfalls. Loan volume remains strong despite rising interest rates, he said.
Mr. Lewis also reiterated that Bank of America is not on a prowl for another acquisition. Instead of a merger, he said, Bank of America's resources this year are going toward getting more out of what it has already acquired.
"We are working to find the beauty and excitement in getting better, and not bigger," he said. "We are going to transform this company."
Bank of America is considering selling some consumer finance businesses that are not meeting profitability guidelines, and intends to continue to invest heavily in building its private client group and investment banking business groups.
The company also continues to build its Internet presence. While declining to comment on specific budget details, Mr. Lewis said that Internet efforts get "everything they ask for."
One thing that is not in the works, he insisted, is a management change at the top. In introducing Mr. Lewis at the conference, Thomas K. Brown of Second Curve Capital told the audience that he believes Mr. Lewis will take over as chief executive officer from Hugh McColl at the company's annual meeting in April.
Mr. Lewis, who became the heir apparent to Bank of America's CEO spot in October, when he was promoted to his current position, said Mr. McColl is not contemplating making such a move next month.