Community bankers overwhelmingly oppose giving nonbanks unrestricted access to payment systems, according to a recent survey.
In an annual survey by Grant Thornton LLP, 81% of 612 senior-level community bank executives said systems such as the Federal Reserve's Fed Wire and the automated clearing house network should be the province of "insured financial depository institutions."
Reflecting attitudes also common among big-bank leaders, the community bankers were concerned about losing control and market share. They contend the payment systems are best entrusted to institutions that have an explicit, vested interest in their long-term viability.
"The future of financial services lies in electronic commerce, and community banks do not want to lose one of their major competitive advantages to Internet companies, credit card providers, and other commercial firms," said Diane M. Casey, director of financial services at Grant Thornton and partner in charge of the study.
"Community banks do not want a Microsoft or an Intuit to own a bank," she added, and will "fight to preserve the integrity of the payment system and their exclusive role in it."
Grant Thornton, a Chicago-based accounting and consulting firm that does much of its work for community banks, conducted the survey in December and released the results amid a swirl of congressional discussions about "financial modernization." Senate Banking Committee Chairman Alfonse M. D'Amato, R-N.Y., and House Banking Committee member Richard Baker, R-La., introduced identical measures that would essentially allow banks to affiliate with any other type of company.
Many bankers interpret such liberalization as a "legislative threat" to the payment system, according to Kenneth Guenther, executive vice president of the Independent Bankers Association of America. The "D'Amato proposition," he said, makes "the threat level enormously high."
Concern about payment-system access and control has spread throughout the banking industry. A Furash & Co. report for the Bankers Rountable in 1994 portrayed the payment networks as a last bastion of industry control that was in danger of passing to nonbanks, repeating the disintermediation that occurred in other lines of business.
Partly as a result of that research, the Bankers Roundtable last year organized Bits-the Banking Industry Technology Secretariat-to safeguard banks' payments roles. The Bits board consists of two community bankers in addition to 10 top executives from the Roundtable's big-bank membership.
Some community bankers are more sanguine about the joint impact of deregulation and technology.
Arthur C. Johnson, president and chief executive officer of United Michigan Bank, Grand Rapids, said if banks get authority for a broader range of services, "we have great confidence that we will find a niche and be successful."
The $145 million-asset bank faces sizable competitors such as Old Kent Financial Corp. and First Chicago NBD Corp. But "technology is going to make it possible for smaller players to do more things," Mr. Johnson said.
He favors some protections for payment systems. He said the ticket for access should be a bank charter, and nonbanks must "play by the same rules as everyone else."
The survey indicated resistance to financial modernization. Of those responding, 46% were opposed to Glass-Steagall repeal, which would break down most of the legal barriers between banking and other forms of commerce. Another 29% were in favor of such legislation, and the rest were "neutral."
Opinions are still forming about the D'Amato approach. Mr. Guenther of the IBAA said most community bankers will resist such "modernization."
"Community bankers are saying rather resoundingly and overwhelmingly that there is nothing in it for us," Mr. Guenther said. "It increases the competitive difficulties."
Only 16% of respondents supported common ownership of banks, securities firms, and insurance companies. Also, 96% of the bankers supported elimination of credit unions' preferential tax status.