WASHINGTON - Holding out hope for subsidies, Treasury Secretary Lawrence H. Summers on Monday revived the Clinton administration's effort to prod banks to increase services in low-income communities.
Mr. Summers said Democrats in the House and Senate would introduce legislation as early as this week that would authorize a $30 million test program in fiscal 2001 to broaden access to banking services.
The bill would create financial incentives for banks to offer low-cost accounts and to put automated teller machines in post offices and other public locations in neighborhoods where ATM access is limited. Some of the funds also would be earmarked for financial education programs in low-income areas and to research ways banks can more effectively reach underserved populations.
"It cannot be right that in today's world of staggering financial innovations, that one-tenth of American households have no bank accounts," Mr. Summers said in a speech before the Consumer Bankers Association's community reinvestment conference here.
Sen. Paul Sarbanes of Maryland and Rep. John J. LaFalce of New York, the ranking Democrats on their respective Banking Committees, will be the sponsors, Mr. Summers said. The legislation would fulfill a promise by President Clinton in his State of the Union address and subsequent speeches to establish "first accounts" for families outside the economic mainstream. Republican response has been mixed so far.
Mr. Summers said details of how and where the $30 million would be distributed are still being worked out, but that the plan "includes the possibility of subsidies" for banks that establish low-cost accounts for non-accountholders.
Mr. Summers told reporters that the use of subsidies would not be an admission that such accounts are unprofitable for banks. "We've found that it can be important to prime the pump and to provide incentives for carrying on activities that, while they can ultimately be profitable, do involve some uncertainty at the beginning," he said.
Federal officials would like banks, beyond participating in the programs, to be more innovative in their attempts to target underserved populations. Regulators, Mr. Summers said, will help by providing guidelines and publishing best practices to "help banks and thrifts continue to push for further innovation and expanded access." Mr. Summers avoided questions on rules that would implement the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999's changes to the Community Reinvestment Act. The Federal Reserve Board and Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. are scheduled to vote Wednesday on the financial reform law's "sunshine" provision, which requires banks and community groups to disclose details of CRA packages. Community groups that have protested bank mergers on grounds of CRA noncompliance have to disclose once a year how they used loans or grants from the banks involved; banks also have to file annual reports on their deals with community groups.