Banks preparing in case of goverment shutdown

July 29, 2011

Financial institutions across the country have begun preparing for a worst-case scenario if Congress fails to raise the nation’s borrowing limit, assembling plans to offer customers emergency loans or waive fees if their federal pay or benefits checks do not arrive on time.

Navy Federal Credit Union, the largest in the country, said this week it would advance pay to direct-deposit members who are active-duty military or civilian employees of the Defense Department. It also said it would expedite approvals for lines of credit, overdraft programs and higher credit card limits.

A spokesman for the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, which oversees nationally chartered banks, said it is considering guidelines that would encourage financial institutions to work with their customers if checks are delayed, particularly in the case of overdraft or penalty fees.

Some of the nation’s largest consumer banks, such as Bank of America and Wells Fargo, have not yet announced plans for customers in the event of a shutdown. A joint guidance is expected from the nation’s banking regulators within the next few days.

The Treasury Department has said that unless lawmakers agree to a plan by Tuesday to increase the the amount of debt the government can take on, the country could risk being unable to pay all of its bills. That could result in a partial government shutdown and the delay of Social Security and other checks, creating havoc with family budgets.

Government payments that could be affected include not only Social Security and federal employees’ salaries, but also military pay and food subsidies for low-income families.

“Every bank is doing things their own way to take care of their customers,” said Richard Hunt, president of the Consumer Bankers Association, a trade group. “Obviously, they hope this deal is done quickly.”

But the institutions must walk a fine line between alarming consumers and creating contingency plans, industry groups said.

“There’s no sense creating more to the drama before it actually occurs,” said Paul Merski, executive vice president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, a trade group.

As attempts to find a compromise on the debt ceiling repeatedly broke down this week, financial institutions began putting their customers on notice.

“Hard-working government employees and Social Security recipients shouldn’t suffer because our lawmakers in Washington can’t come to an agreement on spending,” said Sonya McDonald, senior vice president of market development for Randolph-Brooks Federal Credit Union in Texas.

The credit union said it will provide those members with a one-time credit with no interest or fees so long as they had enrolled in direct deposit. It said it would contact members who may be affected by any shutdown.

The move by Navy Federal Credit Union generated messages of gratitude on its Facebook page.

“Praying the idiots who messed everything up in the first place fix this so we don’t have to worry,” one woman wrote. “Thank you for caring.”

Another added: “This helps to ease the frustration tears.”

Ylan Q. Mui is a financial reporter at The Washington Post covering the Federal Reserve and the economy.
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