Customers need not worry about their banks being ready for the year-2000 problem, a panel of trade association leaders said last week.

Armed with surveys citing the banking industry as among the best prepared for the millennium bug, representatives of eight trade groups- including the American Bankers Association, Independent Bankers Association of America, and America's Community Bankers-fought back against the perception that banks will not be safe.

The groups were responding to statements from groups such as the American Association of Retired Persons, which have warned members that computer glitches could cause their savings accounts to disappear on Jan. 1, 2000.

"We need to get the message to customers that this is not something they need to worry about," said Michael ter Maat, member relations director at the ABA. "The safest place to have your money is still in the bank."

Brian P. Smith, director of policy and economic research at the ACB, said, "The real risk is taking out all your money and getting mugged on the way home from the bank."

The groups also stressed that all banks, regardless of size, are subject to the same regulators and, therefore, there is no greater risk in having money in a small bank.

"Community banks have taken most of the heat," said Elizabeth A. Aaron, regulatory policy representative at the IBAA. "But all banks, big and small, are under the same scrutiny, and all will be ready."

The groups said they plan to host a series of briefings in the next 13 months to keep the public informed of banks' progress. Mr. ter Maat said they are also considering using advertising to reach consumers directly.

The panelists were also asked what banks plan to tell their customers and whether extra cash will be on hand at the branches for premillennium withdrawals.

"The money will be there for customers if they want," Mr. ter Maat said. "But it's our advice they only take out what they need to celebrate a holiday weekend."

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