WASHINGTON - With Jan. 1 just hours away and all 10,271 insured banks and thrifts reportedly Y2K-ready, regulators are confident they have the technology problem licked. They are less sure about their ability to manage the public psyche.
"We know there are going to be ATMs that run out of money," said Federal Reserve Board spokeswoman Rose Pianalto. "On a normal day, it would not be a story. On Y2K day, it's a story."
Compared to the mammoth, three-and-a-half-year-long supervisory effort to get banks to inoculate their computers, the government's campaign to reassure jittery depositors is more modest in scope but still impressive. It includes $400,000 worth of Gallup Organization polls to gauge public opinion, a $65,000 contract with the public relations firm Shandwick International to shape it, and a seven-city publicity tour by agency chieftains. Office of Thrift Supervision Director Ellen Seidman recently met with the editorial board of The Washington Post to assuage concerns.
"We don't want all that work to be jeopardized because people panic," said Robert M. Garsson, director of press relations at the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency.
Government officials point out that their tight supervision of banks is itself a powerful message.
"We're the only industry that has had on-site inspections multiple times," said Michael J. Zamorski, who heads the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.'s year-2000 project. "I think all that goes a long way toward bolstering public confidence."
The campaign appears to be having an effect. According to a Gallup poll conducted this month, nine in 10 people are either "very" or "somewhat" confident that their bank is ready for 2000, up from eight in 10 last March.
Bank regulators are not taking any chances, however.
Among the many emergencies they have rehearsed for is the doomsday scenario: A media-driven panic that causes depositors to deplete a bank's reserves and the government to shut it down.
"We don't think that situation is going to be one that we're going to face," said Mark L. O'Dell, the OCC's year-2000 chief. "But we are prepared for it."
Each of the bank, thrift, and credit union agencies will have supervisory staff members in place over the weekend to monitor the institutions they oversee. At the FDIC, Mr. Zamorski said, approximately 800 field examiners will contact the agency's 5,800 banks to confirm that their general ledger and other critical systems have not had a meltdown, that their liquidity is, so to speak, solid, and that their customers are not dragging wheelbarrows to the ATMs.
All of this feedback will be reported to a temporary communications center on the 6th floor of the FDIC's headquarters here, a high-tech setup with 11 computers, two large televisions blasting CNN and C-Span, and a projection screen on which results will be tallied.
A somewhat smaller operation on the 7th floor houses three large televisions and a couple of phones. Here, FDIC media relations employees will channel-surf nearly round-the-clock to keep abreast of any fires that need stamping out.
If the big-footed government plan has an Achilles' heel, it is the venerable automated teller machine. On any given day, industry leaders say, approximately 2% of the nation's 230,000 ATMs malfunction or run out of cash. But regulators fear that a run-of-the-mill ATM failure on New Year's Eve could lead to a most unpleasant run on a bank.
"Suppose there's a local television camera crew patrolling around," said one agency official who asked to remain anonymous. "They stop at an ATM at midnight and find it doesn't work: A dollar bill gets stuck, or it's out of paper. On Y2K weekend, the concern would be that somebody would decide it's a Y2K problem, think they're not going to have access to their money, and create a little panic."
To address the problem of ATM cash shortfalls, federal regulators for months have urged financial institutions to stockpile. That message seems to have gotten through. Financial institutions have obtained $35 billion of cash from the Fed this month, compared with $10 billion in December 1998, Ms. Pianalto said.
And to make sure that all financial institutions are within a four-hour drive of more cash during the rollover weekend, the Fed has set up 70 temporary storage facilities to go along with cash vaults at its 37 reserve bank and branch facilities.
Earlier this week the FDIC alerted reporters to its final public relations gambit: a photo op featuring a government official withdrawing cash from an ATM.
"To show that the Y2K bug has not 'bitten' the banking industry, FDIC Chairman Donna Tanoue invites you to watch as she uses her personal ATM card to withdraw cash from her bank account on Jan. 1, 2000," the press release said.
This media spectacle may be even duller than it sounds. Not only is Ms. Tanoue making her withdrawal at 9:00 a.m. - 540 minutes after the Y2K witching hour - but the FDIC gave First Union over a week's warning, including exactly which ATM would be used.
First Union spokeswoman Christy M. Phillips said the bank will be closely monitoring all 2,400 of its ATMs over the weekend, not just the one located a block from Ms. Tanoue's office. But she acknowledged the pressure to make sure that particular machine performs. "Sure, when you're made aware of an event like this, you are put on heightened alert, because it's high-profile event," she said.
Michael Sinclair, customer relations officer at the First Union branch Ms. Tanoue is expected to visit, said the advance warning will not help. "If it's going to fail, three weeks' notice wouldn't be enough."