Washington-area bankers say that if Congress forces them to reduce the "holds" they place on newly deposited checks, fraud will increase and they will be forced to raise fees to customers.
A survey by The Washington Post of about 30 commercial banks and savings institutions here indicated that more than four out of five would be compelled to cut back their holds on local and out-of-state checks if a bill now pending in the House becomes law, as is widely expected. Two-thirds would have to reduce their holds on checks under $100.
In some cases, the change would be drastic. First American Bank of Virginia, which holds a cashier's check up to 14 days, would have to make funds available in just one day. Pentagon Federal Credit Union, which puts a hold of as long as 20 days on a $1,000 personal check written on an out-of-town bank, would have to cut that to seven days.
The legislation is vigorously opposed by the banking industry, and many officials of local financial institutions share that view. William F. Sinclair, chairman of Washington Federal Savings and Loan Association, called it "another nail in the coffin, making it more difficult to be profitable." Fee Hikes Foreseen
George A. Didden Jr., chairman of National Capital Bank, said a shorter check hold would result in a significant increase in losses to the bank. To make up those losses, the bank would have to increase fees across the whole spectrum of its services. The losses also could affect the interest rates the bank pays.
None of the bankers questioned, however, would hazard a guess on how much fees could be expected to increase.
The House bill calls for a phased reduction of holds on checks over the next three years. Initially, financial institutions would have to make funds available one business day after deposit on all checks of $100 or less; on those drawn on a local bank or on an in-state branch of the same institution; on cashier's and certified checks endorsed only by the payee listed on the check, and on any check issued by the U.S. Treasury or a state or local government.
The major exceptions would be checks drawn on new accounts or on accounts frequently overdrawn and checks for more than $5,000. Out-of-town checks for more than $100 could be held up to six days. Savings institutions, which clear checks through banks, could add a day to each category of holds.
At hearings this fall, the American Bankers Association claimed that only a minuscule percentage of checks actually are subjected to holds. But a consumer study reported that 15 percent of families complained about problems resulting from delayed-funds availability. Fed Said to Be Slow
Banks argue that they must hold checks because the Federal Reserve System's processing procedures are so slow. When a customer deposits a check, his bank sends the check through the Fed's clearinghouse system for presentation to the bank upon which the check is drawn. If the check is no good, it goes back through the cycle to the first bank. The return process can take a number of days.
Meanwhile, the banks argue, if no hold has been placed on the deposit, the customer can withdraw the money and depart, leaving the bank holding the bag.
"We may get funds before the third day if the check is good," said Jerry Baroch, executive vice president of the Bank of Baltimore. "But we won't find out before the third day if the check is no good. That's what those who are up in arms about this issue don't understand."
The pending House bill directs the Federal Reserve to develop within three years a system speeding up availability to one business day after deposit for local checks and not more than three days for all other checks.
Legislation in the Senate, sponsored by Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.), would make the three years a goal rather than a deadline, but is otherwise similar to the House's bill.
In the meantime, the Fed has sided with the industry in opposing the reduction in holds. The pending bill is a threat to the safety and soundness of the banking system, according to the Fed. Legislation Termed 'Severe'
The U.S. League of Savings Institutions has termed the legislation "severe," and the American Bankers Association maintains that longer holds are necessary to prevent fraud. Rep. Fernand St Germain (D-R.I.) chided the industry for trying to protect what he called the "bonanzas for those institutions that play the float game." Float refers to the bank's use of a customer's money before it starts to pay interest on the account; it is tantamount to a free loan to the bank that the bank can count on for a few days.
While some local bankers were vocal in their opposition to the bill, others said they thought it would be tolerable.
"We can live with the bill," said William V. White, executive vice president of the National Bank of Washington, which would have its hold time cut in half. G. J. Manderfield, president of Suburban Bank, said he didn't see the legislation as a major event for commercial banks, but thought it could affect savings institutions, which have slower check-clearing processes. Sampling Shows Range of Check Holds
A sampling of financial institutions in the District, Virginia and Maryland shows a wide range of check holds among institutions, from zero to 20 days. For the last four years, Riggs National Bank has made funds available in one to two days. Riggs spokesman George Beveridge said, "We feel we're well within the industry experience [of checks returned]. We have an excellent control system, and we know our customer well." He declined to speculate why many banks feel the need for longer hold periods, some lasting up to 15 days.
The accompanying chart shows different holds applied by local banks and savings and loans to 12 types of checks. The figures represent the maximum amount of time that can elapse before a customer gets access to his money.
When compared with a survey done last spring by Public Citizen Inc., Washington Post data indicates there has been little change in hold policies in the Washington area, despite publicity on the issue.
Most checks are processed automatically through the clearing system in one or two days. The difficulty arises with those few checks that have to be returned manually. The challenge is to automate the return process, or even better, to eliminate paper checks and develop a system of electronic funds transfers.
"We're dealing now with an out-of-date system. But if support systems were there, I don't think any banker would have a problem with a three-day hold time," said Jerry Chesser, vice president of First American Bank of Maryland.
The evident differences in check-hold policies are compounded by the way those policies are applied. Most banks responded that they put holds on only about 1 percent of the checks received for deposit. Yet surveys by consumer groups and complaints received by this newspaper indicate at least a perception that holds are more widespread.
Comments by bank officials indicate a wide latitude in applying holds. For example, First American Bank of Virginia's policy states that it will "place a hold on all checks except those approved by management and on those of preferred customers."
Security National Bank says it is "more likely" to impose a hold when there has been abuse of overdrafts, on new accounts, and on $10,000 personal checks deposited to accounts with small balances. Yet James Bowman, Security's senior vice president, admits there are "intangible" criteria, such as "trust" and the length of time an account has been in existence.
Others have an even more flexible policy. "It is very discretionary, based on the judgment of the branch manager," said Joe Ward, a spokesman for the Bank of Virginia. Violet West of D.C. National Bank stated, "We make an individual decision on every check."
Didden of National Capital Bank cites the difficulty banks have in returning checks for uncollected funds or insufficient funds. Often, tellers' stamps are superimposed one upon another in an illegible fashion. Since checks must be returned to each bank that has handled them, the process can be long and costly. Didden estimates that the cost to his bank of a returned check is $15.
He said his bank pulls out 200 to 300 checks a day for special attention because they are either drawn against uncollected funds or insufficient funds. The bank pays most of those involving uncollected funds, gambling the money eventually will come in.
Didden added that National Capital Bank does not make significant profits on the float, so it would not lose much income by cutting back holds. Existence of 'Bonanzas' Denied
Officials of several other banks also denied the existence of the float "bonanzas" St Germain described. They claim that interest is paid from the day of deposit; the legislation would allow banks to pay interest from the day the funds are collected.
However, a spokesman for American Security Bank declared, "Service fees to offset former float income is a likelihood."
Washington Federal's Sinclair predicted a 15 percent increase in bad checks if the hold is cut to three days. "It will cost us some money, but I won't use the word 'severe' because whenever you say something will impact earnings, the public reacts unfavorably . Just say it would be another thorn in my side."
NBW's White said, "More attempted fraudulent activity will force banks to make it harder for persons with an adverse history of check writing to open an account with the bank. It will clearly subject us to risk in the short term, and that will mean an increase in costs. If they are significant, we will pass them on over the intermediate term."
Increases would be across the board because it is not fair to raise bad-check charges for a customer when a third party is at fault, he said.
White added that he expected the industry to make changes while the Fed is developing its system. If not, "either fraud will soar or fees will soar, and Congress will find that it has shot itself in the foot."