John R. Beran is not letting go of a payment-system issue that the Federal Reserve Board tried to put to rest last year.
The executive vice president and chief information officer of Comerica Inc. in Detroit used his keynote speech at the Bank Administration Institute's transaction processing conference last week to "challenge the status quo" in no uncertain terms.
He blasted the report on the Federal Reserve's involvement in retail payment systems, which was prepared by a committee headed by Fed Vice Chairman Alice M. Rivlin.
In calling for a lesser role by the central bank so that it competes less with private-sector institutions, Mr. Beran was pretty much toeing the big-bank line that the Rivlin panel largely rejected. His message last week indicated that major banks are not completely giving up the fight.
"I would suggest that the Federal Reserve role could be very strong in setting the rules for all of us to play by, rather than competing with us," said Mr. Beran.
"It just amazed me that we could not come together on something different than what we do today," said Mr. Beran, clearly frustrated with the Rivlin committee's output.
The report suggested that the government's check-clearing and cash management functions should continue to serve as a backbone of the payments infrastructure. Community bankers tended to support the report's restatement of principles that assure them access to the central banking systems, while larger-institution executives preferred more privatization of Fed services.
"All we are going to do is continue to proliferate those things we have always done," Mr. Beran said.
Responding to those criticisms, Cathy E. Minehan, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Boston, said there are important reasons for "the chaotic aspects of what's going on in the retail payment system."
In her conference address a day after Mr. Beran's, Ms. Minehan said the inefficiencies in the current configuration of payment systems reflect the high degree of decentralization in the industry, which in turn has contributed to national economic innovation.
She noted that community banks have traditionally provided a pool of credit to small businesses that is unequaled in other industrialized nations, which have decidedly less robust entrepreneurial sectors.
Ms. Minehan said that during the Rivlin study process, "payment system participants told (Fed) system management over and over again that the Federal Reserve should remain a competitive provider of retail services for the good of the overall payments process," while at the same time cultivating a stronger role in promoting electronic payments.
To spread the anticipated efficiencies and other benefits throughout the industry and the economy, she said, the Fed hopes to organize a group of chief executive officers "to advance mutual understanding of the cost- benefit trade-offs of broad-based retail payments change, in particular, electronic check presentment and electronic payment."
Electronic check presentment, which would reduce the physical burden and convoluted routing required to clear and settle the paper documents, strikes a supportive chord among bankers.
"We see electronic check presentment as a backbone" for the transactions business, said NationsBank Corp. senior vice president A. Jerry Chambers.
Mr. Beran pointed out that it is a problem for banks when each new payment system requires them to add a new layer of technology and operations to administer it.
"From cash to check to credit cards, debit cards, and home banking, none of these methods have eliminated any of the other," he said. "They have simply become additional alternatives."
Instead, Mr. Beran proposed that a "single pipeline" utility unify existing settlement and clearing systems. Such a system would allow consumers to continue to originate check or card transactions, which banks could process through a single back-end system.
"We the banks are either owners or members of each of these networks," said Mr. Beran, referring to payment systems ranging from the automated clearing house to the credit card and debit card organizations.
Any one of those electronic networks may be highly efficient, but banks "have been poor shareholders," he said. "We have let these organizations go unattended to pursue their own agendas, most of which have been increasing volume on their own networks."