In calling this year's version of its annual transaction processing exhibition a "superconference," the Bank Administration Institute clearly communicated its ambitions for the show.

And it largely delivered on its promise to expand the conference's scope beyond the usual check processing issues.

However, despite the institute's best efforts, the meeting featured virtually none of the emotional electricity that has become a staple of its other recently expanded show, the Retail Delivery Conference.

Attendees seemed indifferent to the coordinated rock-and-roll/light show/video presentations that preceded general sessions, and vendors made no announcements to set bankers abuzzing.

Nonetheless, most gave the conference high marks for its content. And the meeting's attendance (850 bankers, 2,500 total attendees) qualify it as a success.

Indeed, several attendees said the Transaction Processing show has evolved into the premier bank operations gathering.

So why the lack of energy? One vendor had an answer: "Transaction processing's interesting, but even if you set it on fire, I don't know that you could make it exciting."

Electronic check initiatives got major play at the conference, held this year in Orlando.

According to several industry observers, about 2% of all checks in the Unites States are cleared with the help of electronic check presentment (ECP), which weaves electronic transmissions of cash letter data into normal check collection processes.

Electronic check presentment systems have been around for several years, but until recently have been slow to catch on. The reason: Many banks had been reluctant to post accounts based on ECP information, fearing reconciliation problems when pretransmitted data did not match the actual check information.

Over the last few years, such fears have proven largely unfounded, giving rise to gradual, but steady acceptance of ECP.

"We got over the posting hurdle a while ago," said Stephen C. Kopiec, vice president at Chase Manhattan Corp.

Electronic check presentment successes, he said, are happening on local levels, and bankers are optimistic that these soon can be expanded. "ECP development is moving along, but it just takes time," Mr. Kopiec said.

One of the local efforts Mr. Kopiec referred to is driven by the New York Clearing House's 1995 requirement that member banks speed up the presentment of checks and send return items electronically.

Through the Clearing House's Electronic Check Collection System, or Checcs, banks are processing about $500 million daily, said Michael J. Pasiecki, chairman of the Electronic Check Clearing House Organization, or Eccho, a bank consortium that develops rules for bilateral ECP agreements.

But he said a lot of work lies ahead. In order for banks to get the full benefits of electronic check presentment - which include reduced processing costs and improved float economics-banks must get more aggressive about their electronic check initiatives.

Mr. Pasiecki said savings from ECP could amount to as much as $3 billion annually, but those savings will not come until banks commit to changing the way they process.

"We have been hearing this chant about the demise of checks since the early 1970s," Mr. Pasiecki said.

Though checks are clearly going to be around for some time to come, "in the next few years ... virtually all check volume will be supplemented by electronic files," he said.

A session on electronic bill payment initiatives noted that consumers are warming to the idea of automated bill payment, and about 2% of all bills now are initiated electronically.

However, between 60% and 70% of these "electronic" bill payments actually involve a bill-payment provider cutting checks on behalf of consumers and sending them to merchants and utilities whose accounts typically are managed by banks.

This so-called check-and-list payment method does little to help banks advance toward their goal of reducing check volumes.

"It's up to banks to say 'We will not accept check-and-lists,'" said Steven E. Bernstein, the Chase Manhattan Corp. vice president who gave the presentation on bill payment. "That's how we're going to move forward."

On the imaging front, leading vendors of check processing equipment jointly voiced their disagreement with a recent report that showed check image applications for the proof of deposit (POD) function tend to increase, rather than reduce, check processing costs.

Executives from Banctec Inc., International Business Machines Corp., NCR Corp., and Unisys Corp. all took issue with the findings published in November by the Advisory Board Co.

Specifically they said outdated information led to the Advisory Board's assertion that the cost of processing a check with an imaging system was 3.06 cents compared to 2.19 cents on a conventional check processing system.

"There are very few things we agree with our competitors on, but we all agree on this: The hype gap (for image POD) no longer exists," said Edward J. McHugh, director or marketing at Unisys' payments systems division.

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