Equitex Buys FTC

Equitex, Inc. announced Monday the signing of a definitive agreement for the acquisition of First TeleServices Corp..  The transaction is expected to close by the end of August.  As previously announced, Atlanta, Georgia based FTC will merge into a wholly owned subsidiary of Equitex through the issuance of 625,000 shares of Equitex common stock in exchange for all of the outstanding shares of FTC.

FTC is a fee-based financial services organization consisting of a database marketing division, consumer finance division, an inbound/outbound calling center and an operations center.  FTC will perform as a consumer finance company offering a broad array of financial products and services to the sub-prime market.  These products will be developed and serviced through correspondent relationships with companies specializing in those particular products including debt transfer servicing, secured credit cards, B and C mortgage loans and sub-prime auto loans.  To implement its business plan, FTC has developed strategic alliances with a number of nationwide organizations to outsource the products and services it offers.

“We are extremely excited about the addition of FTC to our portfolio,” stated Equitex President, Henry Fong.  “We believe FTC’s unique approach to database management, debt servicing and financial services along with their two year head start on the competition will provide Equitex and its stockholders with a dynamic player in the burgeoning sub-prime lending industry.  This acquisition is an integral step in our decertification plan.”

“Completion of this merger gives FTC access to both the public and private capital markets providing us the means necessary to take advantage of the numerous strategic alliances and marketing agreements we have in place,” stated FTC President, John Cahill.  “The merger is just one step in our overall business plan allowing us to move from the research and planning stage to the operational stage of our company’s development.”

FTC recently announced the signing of a marketing agreement with Premier Capital, LLC (“Premier”) of Lawrence, Kansas that arranges the purchase of charged off credit card debt from financial institutions.  Premier operates a collection division with the fifteenth largest law firm in the United States specializing in consumer collections with $40 million in collections last year.  Premier’s agencies are located in forty cities throughout the United States with over $600 million in total collections last year.  FTC has developed a debt transfer program to assist Premier in its collection efforts by providing a new credit account servicing facility for debtors.  Premier will place over 240,000 accounts with FTC’s debt transfer division amounting to $100 million worth of net revenue servicing business per year.  Of that amount, FTC is forecasting a collection rate of approximately 40% of net revenue serviced from which FTC will receive 25%.  In addition, FTC plans to offer selective products and services to these customers generating additional cross-sales profit.  The agreement consists of a five-year plan with a one- year term including automatic annual renewals.

Equitex, Inc. is a business development company under the Investment Company Act of 1940, as amended.

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Market Canyon

The smart cards industry is bogging down.  According to strategic new research conducted by Frost & Sullivan, the smart cards market has hit a market canyon in its transition from the embryonic to the developmental stage.  F&S says the smart cards industry is now ending its dynamic growth phase that resulted from installation by early adopters of the technology, and smart cards manufacturers are now marketing to secondary adopters who demand that smart cards shift from being the new technological wonder to being a legitimate solution.  The smart cards industry has yet to prove fully the technology’s case as a legitimate business tool. Although manufacturers are still exploring potential killer applications such as Internet commerce and network security, the market has hit a wall as far as the end-user market is concerned. F&S says price levels for smart card ICs have declined by as much as 40% in the first and second quarters of 1998.  This decline is only a symptom, however, of the overcapacity in the market.  For instance, the Chinese market saw approximately 50 million cards sold in 1997, but the country’s capacity is approximately 250 million. Frost & Sullivan’s new studies, ‘Worldwide Smart Card Application Markets and Worldwide Smart Card ICs Markets’, is one of two studies depicting the reality of the smart cards market.

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New VISA PR Head

Amid turmoil in its PR department, VISA yesterday named former GM PR chief, John C. Onoda, as EVP for corporate relations for VISA U.S.A.. Onoda will be responsible for all corporate communications activities in the U.S., including: media relations; public relations; executive communications; employee communications; and communications support for other major VISA projects and issues. In his position at General Motors, Onoda had worldwide responsibility for all communications activities with direct responsibility for GM’s corporate communications function, including media relations, financial communications, internal communications, strategic communications, and communications relating to key public policy issues. Prior to his tenure at GM, Onoda served as vice president, corporate communications for Levi Strauss & Company, based in San Francisco.

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CheckFree & APS

CheckFree announced Monday that American Payment Systems, a payment processing company for utility customers, will use the CheckFree RECON-Plus for Windows client/server system to automate the reconciliation of its more than 100,000 daily transactions.

APS manages more than 1,300 accounts for over 60 major utility companies. RECON-Plus for Windows will be used initially to verify its daily cash transactions across 100 bank accounts nationwide.  It will later be expanded to include reconciliation of other utility processes.

“We were immediately impressed with the power and flexibility of RECON-Plus for Windows.  With this system we will be able to automate more processes than ever before — importing, matching, reporting, etc…which will save significant amounts of time and money,” said Richard A. Okun, President at APS.  “Plus, with RECON-Plus for Windows we can consolidate our numerous bank accounts and further save on the associated bank fees.”

Senior Vice President of CheckFree Software Frank J. Amoruso, added, “APS is a leading processor of consumer payments for utilities, and its decision to go with RECON-Plus for Windows ratifies its leadership.  The comprehensive features of our product will help fulfill APS’ vision of adapting to the expanding needs and challenges of the utility industry.”

CheckFree, a leading provider of reconciliation software to banks and corporations for more than 20 years, has sold over 600 reconciliation systems to organizations around the world, including more than 100 RECON-Plus for Windows systems.

About CheckFree RECON-Plus for Windows

RECON-Plus for Windows is the industry’s most comprehensive account reconciliation application on the market today.  It streamlines the reconciliation process for any organization-wide application, whether check or non-check — including disbursement, depository, general ledger, subledger, wire transfer, debit/credit cards, Federal Reserve, inventory applications, premiums, ATM, ACH transfers and more.  RECON-Plus for Windows also reduces fraud through daily deposit verification, allows for intra-day investment opportunities and provides quicker cash concentration.

About American Payment Systems

American Payment Systems () is a wholly owned subsidiary of The United Illuminating Company, an operating electric utility in southern Connecticut.  APS is the leading service provider in “walk-in customer bill payments.”

APS has more than 6,500 Point of Sale (POS) locations in 38 states, processing over 80 million payments annually for about 75 major utility companies, which represent over 10 billion dollars in customer payments. APS is the technology leader in providing this outsourced service to the utility industry with enhanced features and automatic postings to customer accounts, as well as automated voice-response interfaces for real-time transaction posting.  APS specializes in systems integration to make customer data more available and useful for its clients.  APS’ clients include AT&T, Ameritech, Houston Industries, Southern California Edison, Pacific Gas & Electric, Virginia Power, PaciFICO®rp, Entergy, Central & Southwest, Southern California Gas and Carolina Power & Light.

About CheckFree

Founded in 1981, CheckFree Corporation (), the operating subsidiary of CheckFree Holdings, Inc., is the leading provider of financial electronic commerce services, software and related products for more than 2.4 million consumers, 1,000 businesses and 850 financial institutions.  CheckFree designs, develops and markets services that enable its customers to make electronic payments and collections, automate paper-based recurring financial transactions and conduct secure financial transactions on the Internet.

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CFS Enters Card Biz

Tulsa-based Commercial Financial Services confirmed Monday that an affiliate of CFS has signed a definitive agreement to purchase Corning Savings and Loan Association in Corning, Arkansas.  CFS says it is buying Corning S&L so the firm can offer financial products, like credit cards and home equity loans, to CFS’ customers. The company recently hired Alan Colberg, formerly of Bain and Company in Atlanta, to serve as CEO of the new business. CFS says its first step will be to convert Corning S&L into a federally chartered thrift and then develop and test new credit card and residential mortgage products later this year, and begin offering products to CFS customers in early 1999.

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AmEx Breast Cancer

American Express and the U. S. Postal Service announced Monday a program to help promote awareness of breast cancer and raise funds for research. >From now until October 31, 1998, American Express will donate five cents per transaction every time any American Express Card is used to make a purchase at any of the nation’s 32,000 post offices.   American Express will donate up to $100,000 to the National Institutes of Health for breast cancer research.

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ATM Tracking

The new lightweight, under 200 pounds, ATMs have become prime targets for thieves. TX-based ATX Technologies, manufacturers of the ‘On-Guard Tracker’, has developed a solution to ATM theft by adapting ‘Trackers’ for use in these devices.  ATX has begun shipping units to Security Corporation of Richmond, VA. These small ‘Tracker’ units use the Global Positioning System satellites for locating and tracking ATMs.  For example, when an ATM is compromised, the ‘Tracker’ notifies Security Corporation with its location, direction of travel and speed.  The local authorities are contacted and guided to the machine before criminals have a chance to break into the ATM.

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No Surcharge for Wells & Norwest

There’s good news starting Monday for banking customers of Wells Fargo and Norwest who step up to any of the two companies’ 6,200 ATMs in 21 states — no fees for cash withdrawals.

“We’ve said it from the start — our customers come first in this merger, so we’re doing everything we can right out of the box to make it as easy as possible for them to bank when, where and how they want to bank,” said Norwest President Les Biller.

“We want to offer our customers, especially those who travel extensively, the benefit of this extensive distribution system as soon as possible,” said Wells Fargo President Rod Jacobs.

Reciprocal, no-fee cash withdrawals do not apply to Instant Cash ATMs owned or operated by Norwest’s correspondent banking customers.

Free ATM cash withdrawals will especially benefit Norwest and Wells Fargo customers in the five states where the two companies’ banking systems overlap: Arizona, Colorado, Nevada, New Mexico and Texas.

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Fujitsu Names Two New VPs

Fujitsu-ICL Systems Inc. announced Friday the appointment of Jeffery S. Lund as vice president of new business development for the Financial Services Division.

In this position, Lund will investigate product strategies, product development, strategic partnerships, alliances and acquisitions in a variety of areas including home banking, call centers, payment systems, e-commerce and core systems.

According to Rita L. Champ, senior vice president of Fujitsu-ICL’s Financial Services Division, Lund will capitalize on his extensive expertise in sales, marketing and business development to grow Fujitsu-ICL’s market share.

“Financial institutions are demanding a wider array of products and services to differentiate themselves in the market — and Fujitsu-ICL is poised to deliver the solutions,” Champ said. “Jeff’s experience, which ranges from international logistics to new product and channel development, will allow us to deliver these new products and technologies faster and more effectively than ever before.”

“As Fujitsu-ICL continues its aggressive growth, we are committed to identifying and developing new products that will expand our electronic delivery systems offerings to the financial industry,” Lund commented. “This combination of growth and new product development make this position both a challenging and exciting opportunity for me.”

Prior to joining Fujitsu-ICL, Lund served as the Director of International Sales-Asia Pacific for Melita International, an Atlanta-based call center products company. In this capacity he was responsible for sales and new business development activities. Lund also spent 10 years with National Data Corp. where he was responsible for managing new business development as well as product marketing.

Fujitsu-ICL Systems Names New Vice President of Financial Services Marketing; Banking Veteran to Focus on Strategic Marketing and Product Development

Fujitsu-ICL Systems Inc.’s Financial Services Division also announced Friday the hiring of Mary Nell Hoover as vice president of marketing.

Hoover will oversee all marketing activities including strategic planning, new product design and development, on-going product marketing, marketing support and marketing communications.

According to Rita L. Champ, senior vice president of the Financial Services Division, Hoover is ideally suited to help Fujitsu-ICL meet the growing challenges in the financial services industry.

“With the exponential growth of electronic banking, extensive M&A activity, and even the issues posed by the approach of the new millennium, today’s financial institutions are under increasing competitive pressure. They are seeking ways to streamline their operations while improving services to customers and differentiating themselves from the competition. In response, Fujitsu-ICL is developing new products and service offerings specifically designed to meet these needs,” Champ said.

“Mary’s expertise in marketing strategy and new product development, combined with her extensive banking experience, makes her the ideal choice to lead Fujitsu-ICL’s Financial Services Division forward.”

“Having been in bank management for over fifteen years, I know how important vendor commitment and support is to customers. Fujitsu-ICL reflects this commitment in its knowledgeable and dedicated staff, and in its support and focus on the unique needs of each client,” Hoover said. “I look forward to being a part of such a dynamic team, and to reinforcing and driving that commitment.”

Prior to joining Fujitsu-ICL, Hoover worked with major banks such as Security Pacific National Bank (now Bank of America) in Los Angeles, and First Merit Bank of Akron, Ohio. During her career, she has been involved in the analysis and development of a variety of electronic delivery products including ATMs, home banking, card products, centralized call systems and database marketing systems.

With over 15 years of experience in the financial industry, Hoover is well versed in meeting the demanding needs of the banking industry. She holds a master’s degree from Iowa State University and a Professional Certificate of Business Management from UCLA. In addition, she attended the Stonier Graduate Banking School and the School of Bank Marketing.

Fujitsu-ICL’s Financial Services Division is based in Hackensack, N.J., with operations and sales offices in La Jolla, Calif., and Atlanta. The Financial Services Division has built a reputation for providing innovative features, progressive ergonomic design and reliability for its Series 7000 Advanced Platform family of ATMs and cash dispensers for off-premise, through-the-wall, drive-up, kiosk and lobby installations.

With headquarters in Dallas, Fujitsu-ICL Systems Inc. employs 1,200 people in North America and is the result of a joint partnership between ICL PLC of London and Fujitsu Limited of Japan.

In addition to its line of automated teller machines, airline ticket printers and handheld computer systems, Fujitsu-ICL Systems provides integrated information systems to supermarket, home center, specialty and hard goods retailers in North America.

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Mid-Year Pulse

The bank credit card industry has hit the skids. Since last summer, credit card outstandings, according to second quarter issuer data gathered by CardData, have increased a paltry 8.4%, from $404.5 billion to $438.3 billion. The August edition of CardTrak, released this morning, says this is the lowest level of growth since the recessionary years of 1990-92. To make matters worse, credit card volume is off too. Quarterly volume is only up 8.3%, comparing 2Q/98 with 2Q/97. Thanks to attrition, the total number of gross and active accounts is also shrinking. Nationwide more than 7 million accounts have been closed since January. The shrinkage is due to three elements: high LTV home loans, record bankruptcy filings, and debit cards. Despite federal scrutiny, homeowners have flocked to high LTV loans to consolidate credit card debt, gain tax deductibility and lower monthly payments. The government reported last week a record number of bankruptcy filings, apparently in anticipation of bankruptcy law reform. Debit card volume continues to soar by at least 50% per annum as consumers displace traditional credit card spending with debit card use to avoid the hassles associated with credit cards. CardData will report on debit card volume within the next few weeks.

BANK   CREDIT   CARD  INDUSTRY  GROWTH
  (excludes debit & business cards)
   98-2          98-1        97-4        97-2
Receivables   $438.3      $433.7     $442.5     $404.5
Volume   $214.1      $195.6     $214.4     $197.7
Gross Accounts    328.5       332.2       335.4       309.9
Active Accounts    220.6       222.6       226.7       206.3
Cards-In-Force     488.3        484.9       483.1      451.4

$ in billions; accounts and cards in millions;  Source: CardData ([www.carddata.com][1] or CD-ROM) 717-338-1885

[1]: http://www.carddata.com

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Bankruptcy Explanation

The diminishing stigma of filing for bankruptcy, spenders who can’t say no and risky use of debt may be leading to an explosion in personal financial bankruptcies, according to experts at Chicago-based Harris Bank, a nationally recognized provider of personal trust, investment and private banking services.

The U.S. economy was on a virtual non-stop joyride for the 12 months ending June 30.  The strong conditions have played a role in diminishing the number of business bankruptcies, but record numbers of Americans are riding the other end of the seesaw in their personal finances. According to figures released this week by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, personal bankruptcies soared 9.2 percent to 1.37 million, while business bankruptcies dropped roughly 3,800 to 50,202 over the same time span.

According to Tim O’Neill, chief economist for Harris Bank and its parent company, Bank of Montreal, the high personal bankruptcy rate is somewhat surprising.

“Generally, strong and sustained economic growth combined with low interest rates usually means that both business and personal bankruptcies decline,” said O’Neill.  “However a strong economy may have boosted consumer confidence so high that there is a powerful willingness to purchase big ticket items, regardless of whether the cash is on hand.  Easy credit conditions allow that compulsion to be satisfied.”

The economic conditions often lead to a false sense of security driven by hefty salary raises.  Debralee Nelson, senior financial planner at Harris Bank, said that even those individuals in high income levels — some with paychecks of more than $200,000 per year — have lost perspective in this economy.  She sees individuals saddled with credit card debt as high as $50,000, on top of huge mortgages and car loans.

“People just spend because they think they’ll always have a paycheck. We’re living in an age of consumerism,” she said.  “There are a lot of older Baby Boomers with children in their late teens and early twenties who buy whatever they want.”

And the big spenders aren’t only those in their prime earning years. Nelson sees retirees overextending themselves to help support their children, who may never achieve the standard of living their parents did, as well as their grandchildren.

“We’re spoiled,” said Nelson.  “We can’t say no, to ourselves or others.”

Diminishing Stigma of Bankruptcy, Questionable Use of Credit Major Factors     Society’s changing view of bankruptcy is a contributing factor to the increasing frequency of insolvency, according to David Mead, chief investment officer for Harris Bank.

“The rise in bankruptcies is amazing when you consider that personal income is up, purchasing power is up, inflation is down and unemployment is down,” said Mead.  “The liberalization of personal bankruptcy laws has reduced the stigma of filing.”

Federal legislation is being developed in the Senate to toughen the standards for filing a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, which is designed for personal filings.  However, there is only a small chance that the legislation will be enacted by the end of the year.

Mead believes that the strong stock market has created a potentially more detrimental practice.  He sees individuals using home equity loans or credit cards trying to capitalize on the recent bull run in the stock market.

“Just because the market’s been up doesn’t mean that everyone is participating,” said Mead.  “And those who jump in now — particularly if they borrow to do so — are living dangerously.”

Many individuals are confident enough about their future to use their home equity to pay for their current spending.  While a tax-deductible home equity loan is a viable way to pay down credit card debt, Nelson notes that the strategy only is effective if the individual then tears up the credit cards instead of beginning the spending cycle over again.

“Individuals who will extend themselves like that usually are already living on the edge,” Nelson said.  “The recipe for disaster is combining easy access to credit, which today is much like it was in the 1970s, with home equity loans that allow people to borrow 100 percent or more of their home’s value.”

Market Correction Could Be a Wake-Up Call

While the current stock market skid would seem to throw more fuel on the bankruptcy fire, Nelson believes that a continuing downturn in the market could serve as a much-needed wake-up call for many consumers.

“The good times won’t last forever,” Nelson said.  “If there is a market correction, as many have forecast, it should make people sit up and take notice.  It sends a message that more people will find themselves at the brink of bankruptcy if they don’t seek financial planning advice.  Unfortunately, those who already are overextended will be in huge trouble.”

Harris Bank, with $24 billion in assets, is a nationally recognized provider of personal trust, investment and private banking services, one of the largest community bank networks in Illinois and a major Midwest corporate bank.  Harris Bank is a member of the Bank of Montreal group of companies.  With assets of approximately U.S.$154 billion, BMO is one of the 10 largest financial institutions in North America.

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