Retail payment systems will be operating normally after Jan. 1, making it unnecessary for consumers to hoard cash pending possible year-2000 glitches, a panel of banking and payments industry executives said Friday.

They held a press conference hoping to assure the public about the readiness of noncash payment systems for 2000.

Consumers "really don't need to have extra cash," said E. Lee Beard, the president and chief executive officer of $497 million-asset First Federal Bank of Hazleton, Pa. "People can still write checks, and people can still use credit cards."

"Retailers are ready to take whatever form of payment you bring in," said Cathy Hotka, vice president of information technology at the National Retail Federation.

The focus on cards and checks was meant to complement previous reassurances from bankers about how their computer fixes, regulatory oversight, and deposit insurance would protect the public.

Robert Reeg, head of systems development at MasterCard International, said his company has come up with five ways for a merchant to authorize a credit card purchase in the event of a power outage or other calamity. Even if all five methods fail, he said, most merchants would be willing to process transactions manually, though they might impose a dollar limit.

Many observers still expect consumers will make outsize cash withdrawals from automated teller machines in the days and weeks leading up to Jan. 1. If they do, they should find enough cash on hand, said Paul Schmelzer, executive vice president of Honor Services, the network operator based in Maitland, Fla.

He said the ATM industry is accustomed to accommodating "spikes in volume two to three times our normal" over holiday periods. Moreover, ATMs are "smart," automatically transmitting an electronic message when they need to be refilled.

Honor is taking no chances. It has commissioned a Gallup Organization survey to determine how much money consumers expect to take out at yearend. Results are due in May.

Separately last week, progress stalled on legislation aimed at curbing year-2000 lawsuits. The House Judiciary Committee is scheduled to resume debate on the issue Tuesday. Senate debate could also resume this week.

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