The National Automated Clearing House Association is considering a rule change that would force virtually every U.S. bank to handle electronic data interchange payments.

The policy, though somewhat draconian, could have the effect of improving banks' preparedness for advanced forms of electronic commerce.

It would directly promote the concept of electronic data interchange, which, despite acceptance in many industry sectors, has made limited headway among banks. Only about 15% of banks take part in EDI, which involves the automated exchange of corporate documents such as invoices, as well as payments and related information.

The new policy of the national association, which sets interbank payment rules for the automated clearing house network, would filter down to commercial banks and other automated clearing house participants by January 1999.

That deadline would coincide with a government mandate for virtually all federal payments to be converted to electronic form, which is expected to have a ripple effect through the private sector.

"It may be the stimulus to finally get corporate EDI going," said Wachovia Corp. senior vice president Robert E. Wilson.

The formal proposal-still being drafted but likely to go out to members for comment in the third quarter-would require that banks be able to translate financial EDI transactions from computer formats into human- readable text within 48 hours of receiving a transmission.

Electronic data interchange automates and streamlines bank interactions with corporate customers, but demand has not been strong enough to encourage much of the industry to invest in the necessary technology. Officials of the clearing house group said the Debt Collection Improvement Act of 1996 could change that.

The law set a timetable for when corporate recipients of government disbursements must accept them electronically. Though the legislation covered just 27 million Treasury and Defense Department vendor payments-85% of them now in paper form-clearing house group leaders expect it to spur the electronic transactions generally.

"The federal government is unquestionably shaping the future of electronic commerce," said Elliott C. McEntee, president and chief executive officer of the Herndon, Va.-based clearing house association.

He said it is incumbent upon the private sector to adapt because "if we don't, the government will" require the changes by law or regulation.

The clearing house group also wishes to increase the system's transaction volumes. The association has recorded considerable growth in financial EDI transactions, to 22 million automated clearing house entries and 56 million addenda records in 1995. But the vast majority of such transactions flows over private networks provided by the likes of GE Information Services, Harbinger Corp., and Sterling Commerce.

Officials of the clearing house group said banks also stand to profit from cash management services based on financial EDI technology.

But banker-advocates of electronic data interchange-and corporations- have been frustrated by the fact that many commercial banks receive electronic payments but do not have the technology to pass the information along to corporate customers.

William Nelson, executive vice president of the clearing house group, said cost has been a barrier, but more economical software packages have come on the market and "there seems to be a groundswell of support" for EDI.

Viveca Ware, associate director of the Independent Bankers Association of America, said its community bank constituents would likely be receptive to the clearing house association's proposal.

But she said she hoped any rule change "would not result in community banks' incurring unnecessary expense. Not all financial institutions are going to have a need right away to have this ability."

Officials at the clearing house group said certain institutions, such as credit unions with only retail accounts, might be exempted from the rule. Officials also they are considering phasing in the EDI requirement, rather than setting a single compliance deadline.

But one way or another, the association seems intent on jump-starting such transactions.

"It's time to close the discussion and make it happen," said Chip Wickenden, chairman of the clearing house group's bill payment council and manager of electronic commerce at Barnett Banks Inc., Jacksonville, Fla.

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