Forty or even 30 years ago, the only thing that concerned us about the last few years of this century and the first few of the next came out of science fiction movies and television shows. We were thrilled by the adventures of Flash Gordon and the dazzling special effects of the time.
Adventures like Flash Gordon's are still science fiction, but powerful, sophisticated, and possibly confused computers are now a reality-one that may create havoc at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000.
I believe there could be some year-2000 disruptions but not havoc-at least not in the United States. Everyone in this industry knows the consequences of not having their Y2K houses in order: long-term shareholder, customer, and regulatory issues that would negatively affect the vital services banks provide.
That is why the financial services industry is ahead of many others in Y2K preparations. But some uncertainties persist. In all likelihood, there will be some minor Y2K-related glitches. But the perceptions of customers, shareholders, and other constituents today count just as much as the eventual reality.
In a survey of more than 1,000 adults nationwide released in April by the research firm Wirthlin Worldwide, more than 75% said they thought that some, or a lot of, financial records will be mixed up in the transition to 2000.
Similarly, between half and three quarters of the respondents said Y2K would cause disruptions in telephone and utility service, the cancellation of airline flights, shortages of products or merchandise, business losses, and perhaps job losses. Ninety-six percent believed that con artists will try to take advantage of the Y2K issue.
Two additional findings should sound an alarm for the banking industry:
42% said they would withdraw an extra supply of cash before the end of the year, though the survey did not ask how much.
11% said they would close their bank accounts in response to the Y2K issue.
Because I am neither a banker nor a bank regulator, I approach this from the public perspective, and that might not please this audience.
Though it is probably true that most businesses-especially large organizations and those that provide essential services-have done a good job of preparing for Y2K, the public really does not know it. That is the problem.
Perceptions have, to date, been formed largely by doomsayers and the public's imagination. There has been a lack of concrete and credible information.
Television news and the tabloids are having a field day with the extremists who are telling anyone who will listen to head for the hills, build log cabins, and learn how to hunt for food. Judging from the Wirthlin study, banks - and, more importantly, government regulators - need to do a much better job convincing the public that the situation is being well- managed.
Even if banks pull out all the stops to communicate their extensive Y2K efforts, as many have, one element-credibility-is still lacking.
It is the regulators who must address this lack of credibility in the banks' messages.
They need to step in and take specific actions. They must be the leaders in communicating the Y2K message, challenging the extremists and dispelling the propaganda they are dishing out. They need to give their "Y2K seal of approval" to the institutions they regulate, when and if they have done all they can to ensure that computer systems will work properly on Jan. 1.
To give credit where it is due, banks, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and other regulators have disseminated a wealth of information. The regulators have set customer communication guidelines for the banks and made literature available for their use. There is a lot of valuable information on the FDIC Web site, including customer tips. Banks have done much of the same, with regular communications to customers, shareholders, and other interested parties.
Yet the public is still not very confident. And I think that is because there have been none of those seals of approval, like the U.S. Department of Agriculture stamps on meat or consumer protection agency stickers on gas pumps that assure that when you pump a gallon of gas, you get a gallon.
These may not be literal guarantees, but they instill confidence, with the kind of leadership that is seriously lacking when it comes to Y2K. There is need for a public statement that gives reasonable assurance that the proper steps were taken by a particular bank on Y2K.
But from the public's perspective, no official entity is making a genuine attempt to communicate reasonable assurances about the reliability of savings or checking accounts, loans or credit cards. So far, the public has not been given good reason to refrain from heading for the hills.
It is not that the regulators have not examined the banks' computer systems. They have made the rounds on several occasions.
The results of those examinations are actually quite impressive. Only 3.2% of more than 10,000 institutions were rated "needs improvement" or "unsatisfactory," which is great - unless your money is in one of those 3.2%.
Just which banks are these? How many thousands of customers do they have, and how many dollars of deposits do they control? As a depositor, I want to know whether my bank has been rated satisfactory, and I want to know now. I do not want to gamble with my money, even though the odds are 97 to 3 in my favor.
Consumers should have the right to decide which companies they do business with based on credible information and oversight. But when it comes to banks and Y2K, regulators are withholding that information, which is just plain foolish. They will not even allow the banks to let their customers know they were rated "satisfactory."
Shareholders also have the right to know. They have invested in these bank stocks with the expectation that sound management practices will result in dividends and increased stock value. I would not exactly call getting a subpar Y2K rating "sound management." If this is the case, the owners must be told.
If public confidence in the financial system is to be bolstered, regulators need to lead industry communications. If the government wants to avoid erratic behavior by the public, it should disclose its Y2K examinations by issuing its "seal of approval" to satisfactory banks. Remember, the clock is ticking.
Even if the government begins taking this action, it does not mean that the banks and other businesses are off the hook. They must continue communicating their message effectively through the end of the year and beyond.
So where do the bankers start?
There are three things that need to be covered if you are Y2K-compliant.
First, keep communications about compliance simple, emphasizing that your organization has done everything reasonably possible and that you are confident systems will perform normally come Jan. 1. Give some detail on what you have done but avoid technobabble-most customers are not computer professionals.
Second, give customers guidance on how they can prepare. Consider advising them that, though you do not believe it will be necessary, they should have cash to cover an extra day or so, in case of a short-term ATM glitch or another minor problem. You can advise them to save statements and receipts on all account transactions-a good idea in any circumstance.
Third, address the "what ifs." Customers must be assured that no matter what happens, you have contingency plans to address Y2K problems. In today's interconnected electronic world, no organization is an island. From the largest money-center institutions to the smallest community banks, all depend upon countless outside organizations to transact business on a day- to-day basis.
I would like summarize what to do in a top-10 list:
Before you can begin to prepare for the what ifs, figure out what they are.
Identify the people you will need to address every what-if scenario. (They may not be the same people called on for the preceding point.)
Have statements prepared for the media, customers, and shareholders. Do not think for a minute you can figure out what to say on the spur of the moment.
Have a means of putting out statements to news outlets and other constituents. In the worst case, you may have to do this without telephones, computers, or fax machines, so hand deliveries may have to be arranged.
Do not let customers be shortchanged. Set up systems that enable them to have access to their money through as many what-if scenarios as possible, such as ATM failures or depletion of cash.
Have people accessible by phone on a 24-hour basis to answer Y2K questions, at least in the weeks immediately before and after Jan. 1. An automated voice response unit will not do. Also, make sure you have sufficient branch staffing.
Train all employees on Y2K issues and rehearse with them. Enlist them as "information ambassadors" to the community.
Listen to the sound of this: "Schmedley Jones, chairman and CEO of Blue Bank, could not be reached for comment on customer issues concerning his bank's Y2K problems." Is that what you want reported about your bank? Even if you experience no Y2K-related problem, a statement like that on the evening news will probably cause a few.
Have an experienced person available around the clock to answer media inquiries. And to avert speculation and rumors, make sure the press has 24- hour access.
Know how to reach government officials and community leaders so you can keep them informed. In the event of serious problems, these people can be of tremendous help in calming fears and helping spread your message. If kept out of the loop, they could be unjustifiably critical.
Toot your horn, loudly.
After the Y2K hoopla dies down and your systems operate normally, make sure you let your customers and shareholders know. If you had some problems and your what-if plans worked well, let them know that, too. You will have succeeded at an extremely complex and intense undertaking, and will deserve some credit.