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Banks not yet ready for Y2K problems

A new survey says a large number of financial institutions are failing to get their Y2K programs in gear, despite mounting pressures from federal regulators.

Despite mounting pressures from federal regulators, a large number of financial institutions have failed to get their Year 2000 programs in gear, according to a new survey.

The survey, conducted by Weiss Ratings, a Florida-based bank rating agency, found that 247 of 1,128 banks and savings and loan institutions reported Y2K project completion dates that were deemed inadequate.

Back to Year 2000 Index Page Of those surveyed, 195, or 17 percent, were assigned a Y2K grade of "below average," while 52 firms, or 5 percent, were rated "low" by the firm.

Weiss Ratings admits the results contradict recently announced tallies by the FDIC that found only 2.9 percent of insured institutions have failed to achieve a satisfactory rating in their Y2K compliance evaluations.

The difference between the two surveys represents a difference in interpretation, and in the timing of when the surveys were conducted, Weiss said.

"It has to do with the interpretation of 'substantially complete'," said David Lackey, president of Weiss Ratings. "I don't know what [the FDIC's] interpretation is. As far as we are concerned it means the completion with internal mission-critical systems," by the specified regulatory deadline of December 31, 1998.

The varying interpretations are creating industry-wide ambiguity, according to the firm. Many banks report they've complied with the regulatory benchmark--even though their expected completion dates remain months in the future.

FDIC did not comment on the discrepancies between the two surveys, or on the Weiss survey.

By evaluating the banks' actual or expected completion dates for critical tasks, the Weiss Y2K survey separated those that have truly made good progress from those that appear to be lagging behind.

At the other end of the spectrum, 177 institutions, or 15.6 percent, reported data that Weiss interpreted as an indication of "high" progress in their Y2K preparations. The balance, representing 62.5 percent of respondents, indicated a level of progress that was deemed "average," reflecting adequate preparations at the time.

Weiss executives suggest consumers and analysts judge the ratings in the context of a company's overall financial strength. A bank with abundant capital resources is better equipped to remedy its Y2K problems today, as well as cope with any consequences after the year 2000. In contrast, a bank with apparent deficiencies in both its Y2K progress and its financial stability may be at serious risk.

"The main issue is accessibility," Lackey said. "Will people have access to their money? They may not be able to get their hands on it to pay bills after a certain time. It's not going to dry up. It just will be hard to access it."

If people are comfortable with taking some money out before the Year 2000, he said they should do so. " If they're comfortable with taking it out of one bank and putting it in a bank they feel more comfortable with, they could do that."