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Bankers: We're Ready For Year 2000

The nation's bankers are telling people not to panic over the Year 2000 date change, trying to counteract doomsday scenarios of millions of Americans draining their bank accounts in December 1999.

ATM machines, credit cards, checks and banking services will be functioning normally, industry officials promised Friday.

"We don't think there is going to be much to worry about," Michael ter Maat, member relations director of the American Bankers Association, told reporters.

Brian Smith, director of policy and economic research at America's Community Bankers, said ample cash will be available "to meet any demand."

As for the last weekend of the millennium, their advice was: have the same amount of cash on hand as you would for any holiday weekend. "Take out a few extra bucks," ter Maat suggested.

Withdrawing massive amounts of cash could make consumers vulnerable to being robbed, the officials warned.

The Federal Reserve has ordered an additional $50 billion of new currency to put into circulation in the event people make a run on banks and automated teller machines late next year.

Fed governors have assured Congress there will be sufficient cash available to the system to cover a wave of withdrawals.

By the end of next year, $200 billion in currency will be stored in government vaults, up from the $150 billion normally held in reserve. That's in addition to the $460 billion in notes circulating in the United States and abroad.

The U.S. banking industry is spending more than $8 billion to retool its computer systems, which will be put through testing next year.

Some experts have expressed concern about the financial industry's vulnerability to the Year 2000 computer problem and are worried that consumers could lose faith in the security of their banks.

Under one scenario, millions of people around the country start worrying that ATMs will become useless on Jan. 1, 2000, and close out their bank accounts in a consumer stampede the month before.

The industry officials insisted such fears were unfounded. At the most, there could be "limited" outages of ATMs in some areas, suggested Michael Zucchini, vice chairman and chief technology officer of Boston-based Fleet Financial Group.

"We'll tell customers not to do dumb things," said Smith. If people insist on closing their accounts, they should at least put the money in a safe deposit box, he suggested.

Direct deposit into bank accounts of paychecks and government benefit checks is the safest way to handle them "no matter what year it is," said William Nelson, executive vice president of the National Automated Clearing House Association.

When the forerunners of today's massive computer programs were first designed, storage space was at a premium. To save memory space on the old-fashioned mainframes, code writers simply omitted the first two numbers of a date. Tht means 1998, for example, would read as 98, 1999 as 99, and so on. The year 2000 would be read as 00.

Since the systems are coded to assume that all years begin with 19, computers will interpret 00 to mean 1900, if changes are not made.

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