The directors of the National Automated Clearing House Association were surprised when they learned that a proposal designed to limit banks' risk could also have the unintended consequence of making the electronic payment system less efficient.
Last month, the board voted to adopt a resolution that would make payments final for clearing house credit transactions at the beginning of the business day, rather than at the end of the day, as it is currently handled.
The resolution was not binding, but constitutes a request to the Federal Reserve Board of Governors to propose a change in finality rules.
The resolution is aimed at reducing credit risk for banks that must pay out on large-dollar transactions such as direct deposit of company payrolls.
In April 1994, new National Automated Clearing House Association rules will go into effect requiring a receiving bank to release funds for all clearing house transactions at the beginning of the business day.
Without settlement finality at the beginning of business, those banks will be at risk throughout the day in the event that the bank originating the clearing house credit fails.
But a Federal Reserve official told the Board that a change in finality rules could mean that, as result of the earlier deadline, a bank could exceed the amount it is allowed to overdraw with the Fed, and the central bank might not be able to release the clearing house transaction.
If some credits are delayed, that could make the automated clearing house less attractive, by holding up payment of consumers' paychecks, for example.
"Banks may get more than they bargained for" if the Fed accedes to the request for rule change, said a knowledgeable banking source.
The Federal Reserve Board of Governors is expected to request comment on a proposal that would change settlement finality to the beginning of the business day, as the clearing house association has requested.
But "we may oppose settlement finality, if it has too many unattractive features," said a clearing house official.
"The Fed is getting mixed signals from the industry," said Seymour Rosen, a vice president at Citicorp. "In my view, the industry hasn't thought this issue through."
Banks like Citicorp and Chase Manhattan that originate many more automated clearing house transactions than they receive could incur these intraday credit problems with the Fed, so are likely to oppose the rule change as it stands, bankers said.