There is no shortage of issues galvanizing, disturbing, and separating bankers these days, as I learned during several conventions I addressed recently.
The hottest topics: Social Security, the Internet, insurance, and the debate about small versus large banks.
Many bankers came up to me after my talks to agree with my view that the alleged problem with Social Security is hype. The problem, we are told, is that Social Security will run out of money in 2034.
Until early this month the fatal year was supposed to be 2032, but new money was found somewhere. Who can predict what will happen next week, much less 34 years from now? What's more, the assumptions on economic growth are all pretty hypothetical.
Generating fear about the solvency of Social Security is simply Washington's way of scaring the public so that government can use today's surpluses to cut the national debt instead of cutting taxes.
Social Security collections are simply part of government revenue. So as long as the Federal Reserve can create money and the Treasury can borrow from the Fed when needed, the system will not go bankrupt. Bankers offered no objection to this conclusion.
But the other topics generated far more controversy. Prime among these issues was the Internet.
I have long been a conservative on virtual banking. My contention is that almost everything we now do through Internet banking can be done as conveniently by more traditional methods.
Take the Web page. It is really a marketing and advertising vehicle; the information it offers can be provided through brochures and ads.
Borrowing via the Internet involves filling out forms that could be mailed to your home without using a computer. Transfer of funds can be done by phone, as can bill payment. And bills can be paid by direct debit initiated by vendors, such as the phone or utility companies.
The main advantage I see in the Internet is bill presentment, so that transfers to pay bills can be handled without needing hard copies prepared and mailed. I heard a great deal of disagreement on this one, and I must say I was almost won over.
Many bankers admit that the Internet provides little that can't be done easily without it. But they also report that their younger customers, and many older ones, feel modern and excited about using it.
There is also the issue of image. Our nation is computer-driven, and banks that ignore the Internet are viewed as being behind the times.
But there are warning lights. One progressive banker who started to offer car loans on the Internet reported that only 3% of the applications were approved, versus about 70% of those received in traditional ways.
My conclusion: The Internet is going to play a major role in banking, but you don't have to lead the pack in offering Internet services.
Still more debate was prompted by the topic of selling insurance.
Today's delivery system for insurance is truly consumer-unfriendly. Why should so high a percentage of the premium in the first year or early years go to salespeople? Why must getting insurance be so complicated? Here is a real opportunity for banks to play a much more important role.
But the worries are that if a bank sells insurance and annuities, it is robbing itself of potential deposits. And bankers also know that fighting the political power of the insurance industry will take a lot of effort, education, and luck.
Finally there is the issue of small versus large banks.
Larger ones are turning away from smaller-denomination loans and relying more on automated credit scoring. As a result, many bankers see a real opportunity for established community banks and startups to provide the personal service and credit accommodations that the larger ones are eliminating.
So the hottest issue at banker meetings these days is whether the automated and expanded services offered by larger banks will win over a public accustomed to personal service but with only a traditional banking menu.