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© 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz

Even if you are skeptical of Y2K doomsday scenarios, if you are a prudent skeptic, sometime before the dawn of the new millennium you will likely withdraw a little extra currency from your bank account. But here's the catch: If everyone does the prudent thing at the same time, lines will form at ATMs, jittery consumers may start withdrawing all their money, banks might run out of cash, and next thing you know, you've got an old fashioned bank run. 

As the governors of the Federal Reserve Board <> have said, "trust at the consumer level is the foundation of the banking system." In other words, banks are safe places for people to keep their money, just as long as people trust banks. The Federal Reserve has printed $50 billion in extra currency to ensure the banks won't go bust even if Bill Gates decides to withdraw all of his, and most banks have taken various other precautions to protect your money. But no matter how Y2K compliant the banks are, there's still the human factor. Rumors, conjecture and fear of TEOTWAWKI -- Y2Kspeak for "the end of the world as we know it" -- turning a herd mentality into a stampede of mass hysteria.

What are banks doing about the human factor? Most bank statements now come with a notice about being Y2K compliant, and the head of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. <>, Donna Tanoue, recently appeared on "Oprah" to assure viewers their money is safe. But for the most part there's been no major PR campaign. The official position of the banking industry is basically "ho hum," just another day, and a lot of bankers don't even want to talk about Y2K. One who would -- reluctantly -- was Kathleen Shilkret, spokesperson for California-based Wells Fargo <>.

"Try not to be too, sensational," she urged after agreeing to be interviewed.

Deflecting questions about worst-case scenarios, Shilkret said she could say what is the best-case scenario: "Zero happens." But she conceded that Wells Fargo and most other banks have put a good deal of effort into ensuring that zero happens.

"Actually, you can invent a whole lot of scenarios -- civil unrest, power outages, equipment failures -- and we've conducted dry runs," she said.

She described the exercises as similar to those disaster drills in which people walk around with bandages, quickly adding that no one wore bandages during the bank drill.

In September, the bank tested its communications readiness. For example, people would be paged and told the ATMs weren't working. The public relations office had to decide which problems could be handled in-house and when it was time to "alert the media," she said.

She said the drill went "very well," as did another on 9/9/99, which some had predicted would be another day of computer glitches. Instead, "it was another day of nothing happened," she said.

The New Year's weekend is also shaping up to be "ho hum," she asserted. Well, not completely ho hum, as many bank employees, including Shilkret, will be working on New Year's Day, just in case.

But she pointed out that a truly prudent person wouldn't wait until the last moment to withdraw money, so that by Jan. 1, 2000, the threat of a bank run should be over. Besides, most banks will close on Friday, Dec. 31, and won't reopen until Monday, Jan. 3, giving them plenty of time to unsnarl Y2K glitches before any bank transactions are actually processed.

She added that from a common sense point of view, even if you can't get to your money for a few days, it is safer in a bank than under your mattress, where it is not insured by the FDIC up to $100,000.

While the banking industry says it has everything under control, the American Bankers Association <> was stirred out of its sanguinity long enough to complain about Polaroid and Kia Motor Co. airing Y2K commercials showing malfunctioning ATMs. Some bankers were also concerned that a recent made for TV millennial disaster movie would rekindle Y2K fears.

Shilkret said millennium madness, mostly whipped up by the media, seemed to reach a peak of irrationality last summer, but that the mood of the public calmed as the end of the year approached and nothing awful seemed to be happening. What was "disheartening" about the TV movie, she said, was that it tapped into the paranoia that had been going around months earlier. But, she said, by the time the show aired in November, its scenario already seemed out of date, and besides, it got low ratings.

When asked if she planned on being prudent herself and taking out a little extra cash before the end of the year, Shilkret said "probably not." Then she added with a chuckle it would be pretty silly for her to take her money home when she'd be working -- at the bank.

copyright 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz, all rights reserved.

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