Bankers plan to stockpile cash in case customers spooked by the year- 2000 date change make mass withdrawals. But the added liquidity is a double-edged sword.
Community bankers, particularly those working in rural areas, are worried that bulging vaults will inspire a wave of robberies.
"To be blunt, I am afraid it's going to be 'kill-a-teller week,'" said Michael D. Hensley, president and chief executive officer of Van Horn (Tex.) State Bank. "I guarantee robbers are just licking their chops thinking about this."
The $22 million-asset bank sits 25 miles from the Mexico border and 100 miles from any sizable town. "We are a long way from help, and offer a quick getaway across the border," he said.
To prepare for the potential cash demands, the government is printing $50 billion in extra currency.
Neither state nor federal regulators have issued formal guidelines for beefing up security as the date change approaches. But they are urging banks to take extra precautions as part their overall year-2000 preparations.
"We're emphasizing that crime is not going to take a holiday on Jan. 1," said Gayle L. Griffin, director of bank and trust examinations at the Texas Department of Banking.
Gordon Glaza, regulatory counsel at the American Bankers Association, said he is speaking to bankers frequently on the security challenges presented by the year-2000 switch.
"It is something that all banks have to look at," he said. "It's just a another factor in their (year-2000) contingency planning."
With all the publicity surrounding the cash infusion, banks and law enforcement agencies are already taking steps to deter would-be robbers.
In Little Rock, for example, police department officials have met with local bankers to review security issues. The department is considering canceling employee vacations planned for December.
At Bank of Floyd (Va.), president and CEO Leon Moore has called in the Federal Bureau of Investigation to help prepare employees for the possibility of being taken hostage. This summer the $152 million-asset bank will hold seminars for employees, directors, and their families.
"We need to let them know that this is a time to be extremely careful," Mr. Moore said. "There is a huge potential for problems."
The banks holding special training sessions now are the exceptions. But many other institutions are considering similar precautions to make sure their branches are safe at yearend.
Bank of Tidewater in Virginia Beach, Va., for example, is waiting to see what other banks in the area do before committing to more security guards. "If every other bank posts guards, you are making yourself vulnerable if you don't," explained Elizabeth A. Duke, president and chief executive officer of the $215 million-asset bank.
But Ms. Duke is also concerned that increased security could heighten customers' fears. "I don't want to be the only one with more guards, and give the appearance that we are not as safe as others," she said.
Albert C. "Kell" Kelly said he is worried that if he accepts extra cash, Bristow, Okla.-based SpiritBank might invite the sort of problems he is trying to avoid.
"If there was ever a self-fulfilling prophesy, here it is," the $304 million-asset bank's president and CEO said. "We are so worried about a disaster, we are running out to get more money. And that could be what causes the disaster."
SpiritBank's strategy is to simply not request any additional cash until customers demand it, Mr. Kelly said. Customers have been repeatedly told that the safest place for their money is the bank, and Mr. Kelly said he hopes that message sinks in.
At Van Horn State Bank, Mr. Hensley plans to beef up security and ask law enforcement officials to pay special attention to his one-branch bank.
The bank is also spending more time reviewing safety procedures with tellers, and warning employees not to talk about extra cash shipments outside of work.
"Even an innocent comment to the wrong person can plant a seed in someone's head," Mr. Hensley said. "I don't want to give anyone any ideas."
At Oswego (N.Y.) Savings Bank there are no special security training sessions scheduled, simply because the thrift routinely does most of what Mr. Hensley and Mr. Moore are suggesting. The $203 million-asset thrift invites in an outside expert each year to refresh its employees on security practices. The FBI, the Secret Service, and local law enforcement groups have all taught classes.
"Employees get to the point where they don't want to hear me saying something over and over again," said Barry S. Thompson, a senior vice president in charge of security and compliance. "People from that line of work they will listen to every time."