Community bankers are outraged over the U.S. Mint's decision to introduce Golden Dollar coins at Wal-Mart stores.
Though the Mint made no secret of its agreement with the retailer, many bankers say they are embarrassed that their customers can get the coins at the local Wal-Mart but not at the bank.
"I can understand [the Mint] wanting to get the public to accept the new coin, but giving a retailer the ability to offer this first has been a slap in the face to banks," said Jerry Ursprung, cashier at $132 million-asset First Liberty National Bank in Liberty, Tex.
The Golden Dollar, made of layers of manganese brass and copper, depicts Sacagawea, the young Native American woman who helped Lewis and Clark as interpreter and guide on their famous expedition. The coin is replacing the unpopular Susan B. Anthony dollar.
To spark interest, the Mint made a deal with Wal-Mart Stores Inc. that allowed the nation's largest retailer to start making change with the coins on Jan. 30.
"Our goal with this coin was to get it into retail cash drawers as soon as possible," said Michael White, a Mint spokesman.
Bankers have objected to the Mint's agreement with Wal-Mart since it was announced last month. In response, the Mint said in mid-January that 36 Federal Reserve Banks and branches would also begin shipping the coins to banks by Jan. 30.
But because there are more than 9,000 banks and thrifts, some small ones have been told that they may have to wait until March for their first shipment. Meanwhile, more than 2,900 Wal-Mart and Sam's Clubs stores, under the agreement with the Mint, will continue to receive shipments throughout February, according to Wal-Mart spokesperson Laura Pope.
The American Bankers Association says it has fielded "dozens" of calls from angry community bankers who either were not aware of the Mint's arrangement with Wal-Mart or were told that their orders would be delayed. There were also complaints that some Wal-Mart stores jumped the gun and began distributing the coins as early as Jan. 25.
In a letter to U.S. Mint Director Philip N. Diehl, the ABA said the method of distribution is "creating enormous problems for the banking industry" and urged the Mint to address the problems "quickly and decisively."
"The banking industry, which has had a long history of cooperation with the U.S. Mint, deserves nothing less," wrote James D. McLaughlin, the ABA's director of regulatory affairs.
In an interview last week, Mr. Diehl said the Mint is working overtime to address community bankers' concerns. He said that 30 million of the coins have been shipped to Federal Reserve Banks, and that the Mint is producing as many as five million of them a day.
Still, he defended the Wal-Mart strategy, pointing out that after 20 years in circulation, the Susan B. Anthony dollar has failed make inroads into the nation's payment system.
"The situation we faced is that we had to break into the retail market to make this coin work," Mr. Diehl said. "The fact is, banks have never been big buyers of Susan B. Anthony dollars."
How banks will respond to the Golden Dollar remains to be seen. But Gayle Piester, executive vice president at Farmers Exchange Bank in Antlers, Okla., was so eager to get her hands on the new coin that last week she drove 20 miles to the closest Wal-Mart and bought 100 from a cashier.
Ms. Piester said banks are more qualified than retailers to distribute the new coin. After ordering the Golden Dollars, Ms. Piester said, she was dismayed to learn that the cashier did not know the history of Sacagawea or that the coin is the first to depict a child.
"If customers came to our tellers for the coins, they would have gotten a history lesson as well," she said.