There's good news and bad news in federal banking legislation
that goes into effect Oct. 28. General consensus is that the Check
Clearing for the 21st Century Act - better known as Check 21 - is
good news for banks, but not for consumers. And for business
entities, analysts see a little of each.
Although the law doesn't require banks to abandon the practice of
processing paper checks, it creates a new legal document called a
substitute check. Substitute checks will make it possible for banks
to speed digital drafts through cyberspace, dramatically reducing
processing costs and virtually eliminating the time it takes for a
check to clear.
Dallas-based Carreker Corp., which provides consulting and
software services to the banking industry, projected that banks
nationwide could cut expenses by $2 billion per year under the new
law. About $250 million of that savings could come from reduced
transportation expenses alone, because banks that choose electronic
clearing would no longer have to physically send checks to the
issuing bank. Carreker estimated that individual banks could cut the
cost of their check operations by 25 percent or more.
Check imaging is driven by the need to decrease the cost, reduce
the risk and modernize check clearing for both financial
institutions and their customers, said Mark Craig, general manager
of Oklahoma City-based CheckClear. The state of Hawaii, where checks
must be physically transported between islands by plane for bank
clearing, provides a perfect example of why traditional check-
clearing is not cost-efficient.
According to the Federal Reserve, the cost to process a single
check was 5.1 cents in 2003, up 13.3 percent from the 2002 average
of 4.5 cents. And despite the online payments and debit card
transactions putting a dent in check-writing habits, Americans still
use a lot of checks. According to the Federal Reserve, there were
42.5 billion checks written in 2000, 7 billion fewer than were
written in 1995. The Federal Reserve estimated that the number could
drop to 37.5 billion this year.
Using a model bank, consulting and systems integration firm
BearingPoint estimated that a 2,000-branch bank with assets of $160
billion would have to spend $64.2 million on hardware, software and
implementation costs to convert to image-based check clearing. In
the model, that money would be recovered in cost savings in just 17
months. Five years after conversion, the bank's return on the
investment would be 70 percent.
And that's just from what the bank would save on check
processing. The bigger savings comes from eliminating much of the
time that funds remain uncollected while a paper check clears,
usually referred to as the float. Carreker's Rick Kuhn concluded
that significant amounts of non-earning assets would be removed from
the balance sheets of banks across the country. Kuhn found that a
small handful of the nation's largest banks could expect to see more
than $1 billion in non-earning assets disappear from those balance
sheets, while midsize banks would realize an average reduction of
about $60 million.
That translates to an investment opportunity of $1.9 million per
bank, Kuhn wrote.
Paring down the float is also expected to be a boon for companies
that receive a lot of payments by check, especially big retailers.
Terminals are available that will allow merchants to scan a check
and deposit it electronically without ever taking a batch of paper
checks to a bank. Better still for the merchant, the check could be
cleared in a matter of moments rather than days, improving cash
Merchants are also expected to benefit by a reduction in check
fraud brought about by speedier processing. …