Tax season is normally the busiest time of the year for opening individual retirement accounts.
But at some banks the story is shaping up quite differently this year, as consumer demand for IRAs is flagging and promotions are scaled back.
The reason? Experts said that IRA reform being considered in Congress is making some people wait and see what happens before putting more money into the accounts.
They also said that the growing popularity of 401(k)s is taking money that otherwise would have gone into IRAs. Furthermore, non-bank brokerages and mutual fund companies were said to be having better success at getting IRA dollars than banks are.
One sign of the dwindling interest comes from Competitrak, New York, which tracks financial advertising. According to Robert Moss, president of the firm, banks and thrifts in the New York area are making minimal expenditures on IRA ads, amounting to only a fraction of the $710,000 spent in the first two months of last year.
Mr. Moss said that New York is representative of other major metropolitan areas. He added that the decline is indicative of a retreat by both banks and consumers from IRAs.
One reason so many IRAs are opened in the four weeks before the April tax deadline is that contributions for the previous year can be made until then. Given human nature, many people - particularly those who can deduct these contributions - scramble to make them at the last minute.
As a result, banks, brokerage firms, and mutual fund companies, have traditionally spent a great deal of money to promote IRAs during tax season.
One institution that in the past has done so is the FAA Eastern Region Federal Credit Union, Jamaica, N.Y., which serves Federal Aviation Authority employees in the eastern half of the United States. Normally this institution markets IRAs through statement stuffers and promotions in branch offices.
But this year the credit union isn't promoting IRAs at all. The reason?
"I think the vast majority of (retirement) assets are going" into other types of retirement savings plans, said Stanley Baron, chief executive of the FAA credit union.
Mr. Baron explained that the number of new IRA accounts opened so far this year at the credit union is a third of the number opened in the same period last year. He declined to say how many accounts were opened.
Another institution that has backed off of promoting IRAs is Norwest Corp., Minneapolis.
"With Fidelity and (Charles) Schwab & Co. offering no-fee IRAs, how can we compete?" asked Andrew Will, director of consumer products for the regional banking company.
Instead, Norwest is focusing on promoting other services, he said.
Other banks that have backed off from specific IRA promotions are Wachovia Corp., Winston-Salem, N.C., and BankAmerica Corp., San Francisco.
Officials for both institutions said that the banking companies have decided that this year they would be better served by promoting certificates of deposit and brokerage services.
Then, as people ask for these services, some of them will also ask about IRAs, the officials said.
But despite the reticence of some bankers, many others remain bullish about the IRA business.
"I don't know why the others aren't marketing this season," said Trumbell C. Curtiss, senior executive vice president at BayBanks Inc., Boston.
The $10.5 billion asset banking company has seen the number of new IRA accounts opened so far this year nearly double from the same period last year, Mr. Curtiss said.
To get more business, BayBanks this month started advertising IRAs in local newspapers, including the Boston Globe.
First National Bank of the Hudson Valley, LaGrangeville, N.Y., also is promoting IRAs. Bank president John C. VanWormer said the products help it build long-term relationships.
"A lot of customers who establish IRAs with us now might need trust services as they grow older," he explained.
Another bank that claims to be doing well with IRAs is Chemical Bank in New York. According to senior vice president Russell Herz, Chemical customers are on pace to open up twice as many IRA accounts at the institution this tax season as they did during last year's tax season.