WASHINGTON - Labor Secretary Robert Reich said banks will play a "crucial role" in an educational campaign he announced Wednesday as part of an effort to cure America's ailing savings rate.

"Banks are in a key position to promote savings," said Mr. Reich, who was joined by Treasury Secretary Robert Rubin. "They come into contact with people every day and we're counting on them to educate the public."

Nearly 60 businesses and professional organizations are joining the departments in the effort to educate workers about the retirement savings options.

Mr. Rubin said many Americans are not aware of savings and pension plans. This lack of awareness, he added, is the reason America's savings rate is half that of Germany and one-third that of Japan.

"Our national savings rate is a truly dire economic situation," Mr. Rubin said.

The Treasury chief added that domestic savings allows companies and the government to borrow internally instead of turning to other countries for capital. "Americans need to know how important savings is ... and we need to spread that word."

According to Labor Department statistics, fewer that half of the nation's workers have put money aside for retirement and one-third of those with 401(k) retirement plans available did not take advantage of them in 1993.

The Labor and Treasury departments are backing individual retirement accounts, tax-sheltered savings plans, and employer pension plans as the best ways to save for the future.

Among the banking industry groups backing the campaign was the American Bankers Association. Its executive vice president, Donald G. Ogilvie, contended that banks have already been leading the way in promoting retirement accounts for their customers, but he urged them to increase their efforts during the campaign.

"We have recently provided education and training materials to banks that emphasize the importance of saving," Mr. Ogilvie said. "We already do a lot and we plan to redouble our efforts."

He added that the ABA and Visa sponsored the production of two videos aimed at educating grammar school children and teenagers about savings accounts.

Mr. Ogilvie said the ABA and other supporters of the educational campaign will have periodic meetings with the departments to organize further activities.

ABA statistics show, however, that mutual funds and brokerage firms have been more aggressive than banks in encouraging retirement account funding. Of the $915 billion wrapped up in IRAs, only about $133 billion is claimed by banks.

The ABA expects banks will soon catch up in the IRA market.

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