A small surburban bank, Central National Bank of Maryland, yesterday became the first in the Washington metropolitan area to announce plans for what amounts to interest payments on checking accounts.
Under what it calls "zero balance checking" Central National customers who keep $1,000 in a savings account will have funds automatically transferred to their checking account to cover checks as they come in.
The service is scheduled to begin Nov. 1, when new regulations from the Federal Reserve Board will allow banks to begin making so-called "automatic transfers" from savings to checking accounts.
Although banks are forbidden by Fed regulations to advertise the service as paying interst on checking accounts, that is what it amounts to. Bankers view automatic transfer as the first step toward interst-paying checking accounts.
The terms for the service announced by Central National of Maryland are less restrictive than those set by the giant Bank of American in California, which Monday became the first bank to announce its plans.
The contrast between the two plans indicates the automatic transfer accounts could become a highly competitive factor in the banking business.
Bank of America's plan requires a minimum balance of $500 in the savings account, and imposes a monthly charge of $3 for the service, plus 10 cents per check. With a minimum balance of $2,000 the service charges are waived.
The Central National plan has a $1,000 minimum savings blance, but no monthly service charge or fee per check.
The savings accounts in all automatic transfer plans are expected to pay 5 percent interest, the maximum allowed by law and the same rate paid on other savings accounts.
No other Washington, Maryland or Virginia banks have yet announced automatic transfer plans, but most are expected to do so within the next few weeks. The Independent Bankers Association which represents small banks, and the savings and loan industry are opposing the innovation and trying to delay the effective date with legal challenges.
When Bank of America announced its plan a senior vice president of the bank told the Los Angeles Times, "we expect the tone of pricing among California banks to be rational."
But B of A's attempt to avoid cutthroat competition ran into resistance from Security Pacific National Bank, another multi-billion dollar California giant, which said it planned "to introduce service charges that are much less punative."
Whether Central National of Maryland's charges will set the pattern for other Washington banks is unknown. With $45 million in deposits, the bank is a small one in comparison with Riggs National Bank and its $1.5 billion in deposits.
Central National President Thomas Moore said his bank's automatic transfer charges were deliberately designed to attract new savings and checking accounts.
He said the bank experts about 5 percent of its deposits to go into automatic transfer accounts, which are restricted by federal regulation to personal, non-business accounts.
"We definitely expect to make money" on the automatic transfer accounts, Moore said, because the $1,000 minimum balance in savings accounts will provide a stable pool of funds that can be invested.