With interest rate swings and a host of new value-accounting rules to deal with, it's a rare chief financial officer who doesn't rely on a computer to figure it all out.

That applies to community banks as well. Use of asset-liability management software is expected to explode at small banks in the next decade - a part of the industry where chief financial officers, in the modern sense, were rare just 15 years ago.

And according to finance chiefs and the gurus who pioneered the use of high-tech financial modeling tools, executives who can't leverage new technology at their community bank are going to be driven out of the system.

"Today, the CFO is finally starting to come into his own" at community banks, said Jerry Weiner, chairman of Interactive Planning Systems, an Atlanta software firm that designs state-of-the-art asset-liability modeling systems. "The link between technology and the financial function at a bank is inextricable."

"If you talk to the CFO of a community bank about this stuff, the understanding of the concepts is significantly greater today than it was 15 years ago," said Jeff Wildenthaler, an asset-liability software executive. "Although the regulations that call for this type of knowledge are a pain," he said, they have helped the industry, by making finance chiefs learn about high-tech analytics.

Consider George Mason Bank, a $460 million-asset bank in Fairfax, Va., outside the nation's capital. The bank's plan is to grow and stick it out while the banking market around it consolidates.

James J. Consagra, an accountant with no banking experience, became vice president and chief financial officer at George Mason in 1992.

At the time, the bank was on the verge of doubling in size. It would go public in 1994. But until Mr. Consagra got there, it had never had an in- house CPA or made use of modeling systems.

"This organization has almost tripled in size since 1990," Mr. Consagra said. "There was a need for a CFO with investment and accounting experience."

Until recently, George Mason had outsourced all of its asset-liability analysis through several vendors. But outsourcing has its downside, Mr. Consagra said.

"By the time you collect the data, send it out to be analyzed, and get it back it's two weeks old."

Last year, thanks to a supportive chief executive, George Mason spent $11,000 to install a modeling system for managing rate risk. Mr. Consagra said it has fundamentally improved the bank's decision-making.

"Not only does it save time, it allows you forecast," he said. "It allows you to create your own analysis and models. Suddenly there's no limits on what kind of consequences you can analyze from a hypothetical decision.

"I have to believe that for a community bank our size, or for a community bank that wants to be bigger, this type of thing is critical," he added.

George Mason bought the software for the job. But Ray Nash, finance chief of $450 million-asset Vectra Banking Corp. in Denver, points out that if you have the right people, you may not need to buy software.

"We created our own," he said. "It's on a PC we have here."

The software is "a fairly basic spreadsheet kind of thing" and "manpower intensive," he said, "but it works for us right now."

But even Mr. Nash, a critic of the regulatory initiatives in recent years that have required interest-rate-risk management procedures that often necessitate high-cost modeling systems, thinks most banks Vectra's size will eventually go to vendor-produced asset-liability management systems.

"There are some pretty impressive models out there," he said of the new technology. "There's definitely a need for them, and the need has to be filled. Regulators are going to expect, and management is going to need, the next generation of analytics."

Could there come a day when the chief financial officer will be replaced by a computer - a computer with immediate access to all the bank's data, relational data bases, and a peppering of artificial intelligence thrown in?

"Not in our lifetime," said Mr. Wildenthaler, senior vice president of sales at Sendero Corp., an Arizona creator of asset-liability management software. "I can't see computers having the ability to relate all the data in the way a CFO is capable of.

"The goal of the technology is decision support, not decision replacement."

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