The warnings were apocalyptic at the recent American Banker-sponsored conference on electronic bill presentment and payment in San Francisco.

Bankers who had not yet embraced this new business opportunity were told they had better act fast-or else.

"In three years, a lot of banks won't be around, unless they're more aggressive in this arena," said Robert J. Smik, vice president of operations at USABanc.com, a Philadelphia banking company that recently added the "dot-com" to its name to reflect its aggressive Internet plans.

"Bill presentment is indeed a killer (application) and the banks that don't play simply won't be around five years from now," said William M. Randle, executive vice president of Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio.

Threats may gather on two fronts, retail and wholesale, according to conference participants.

Web portals and electronic brokers that gather bills could draw consumers' attention-their "eyeballs," in the lexicon of the day-away from the banks.

On the wholesale side, electronic presentment and payment could erode banks' lockbox businesses, as payments flow through outside processors.

June Felix, senior vice president of Chase Manhattan Bank's treasury management group, joked that her bank is motivated by "fear and greed" to help corporate clients implement electronic billing.

Noting that a significant portion of Chase Manhattan Corp.'s revenue comes from payment processing, Ms. Felix said the "fear" is of losing traditional cash management business. The "greed" centers on maximizing revenue and strengthening corporate customer relationships with electronic billing services.

Some skeptics questioned the value of banks' getting involved in business-to-consumer electronic billing. Gary B. Meshell, executive vice president of Benton International, a Perot Systems Corp. consulting unit, said unless a bank is willing to get into the business of aggregating bills for consumers, electronic bill presentment revenues do not appear promising.

"Everybody is doing this because everybody else is," said a banker during a casual moment at a conference reception. "I just don't think the average consumer will want to do this," preferring instead to take advantage of check float.

Mr. Meshell, though, is a forceful booster of electronic business-to- business billing. He said banks can play a key role in helping businesses to streamline complicated processes and integrate payments with traditional lockbox businesses.

Electronic billing is just one application that brokerage firms could use to grab business from banks, said Bill Burnham, senior analyst for electronic commerce at Credit Suisse First Boston.

"All of the on-line brokerages will get involved in a wide range of banking offerings," Mr. Burnham said. "The battle between the banks and the brokerages will be one of the biggest of the early 21st century."

Mr. Burnham raised eyebrows with a prediction that third-party bill consolidators like Checkfree will have a limited life span as the Internet evolves.

"We believe the prospects for consolidators as a business model are very poor," he said.

With development of open standards for exchanging data, banks and portals will be able to ply the Web for bills from companies and the vendors who help them format the bills electronically, Mr. Burnham said.

As the Web becomes a large "distributed data base," the need for consolidators to gather billing data and disseminate it to sites for consumer viewing will wane.

Consolidators hoping to enhance long-term prospects should move toward helping billers to format their data or become more like portals, aggregating bills for consumers.

"Standing in the middle, in our opinion, is a losing proposition," Mr. Burnham said.

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