The "year 2000 problem" has been billed as a potential time bomb for bank computer systems. But as the clock ticks away, most banks are not close to finding solutions, technology experts say.

By yearend, not a single U.S. commercial bank will have reconfigured its computer system for compliance with year 2000 dates, said a report by Tower Group of Wellesley, Mass.

Consultants and computing industry experts say bank executives do not appreciate the scope of the problem and are failing to address it early.

"There is certainly a reluctance to divert resources and management to what is seen as a maintenance problem," said George T. Kivel, an author of the Tower report.

Most computer systems notate years in only two digits, and are therefore unequipped to handle the rollover from "1999" to "2000." Without a potentially expensive overhaul, banks' machines could read the "00" as "1900" and miscalculate interest rates, among other numbers.

Credit cards that had expired may suddenly seem valid again. Loans that are due may appear to have been paid, or vice versa.

Mitchell Mayo, vice president of Alltel Information Services Inc., Little Rock, described the predicament as "real" and "pervasive."

"Very little or no real repair work has been done at any of the banks we're talking to," Mr. Mayo said.

"Not too many banks have money in the 1996 budget for 2000. As we enter 1997, banks will begin to reprioritize monies to the year 2000 problem."

Budget constraints are only part of the delay in response, Mr. Mayo said. Another factor is the slow spread of awareness of the problem from information technology specialists to CEOs.

Mr. Mayo said most banks are still assessing what they need to do or engaging in early experiments.

The Tower report predicted banks will spend $7.2 billion to fix the 2000 problem, with spending at a peak in 1999.

But those who delay may face higher costs and greater headaches. As the millennium's final year approaches, "the availability and cost of technical resources will become scarce and more expensive," said James McCann, manager of Electronic Data Systems Corp.'s "year 2000" business unit.

Mr. McCann said some of the Plano, Tex., company's 5,000 banking clients are at the beginning of the conversion process, while some are more advanced. The laggards, he warned, "are very quickly running out of time for a complex system," Mr. McCann said.

Some banks are making progress. BankAmerica Corp. expects to have its 2000-conversion strategy in place by yearend, though the problem itself won't be fully solved until later on, said Robert Wynne, a spokesman.

The San Francisco company has already engaged several information technology vendors and consultants to lend expertise and help manage the necessary changes.

Mellon Bank Corp. is also moving forward. Using a software application that works as diagnostic tool, the Pittsburgh-based bank is busy assessing the impact of the problem on its various business lines.

"Acting now greatly increases an organization's ability to do business as usual when 2000 comes around," said James J. Devers, a Mellon spokesman.

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