Euro Craze Fails to Stir Americans

It's hip, new and hot in Europe but the euro currency, due out on Jan. 1, isn't making big waves on this side of the Atlantic.

Americans remain more interested in uncorking a bottle of Beaujolais Nouveau or trying on the latest fashion trends from Milan than in ordering the Continent's new money.

The euro coins and notes will be available in the United States next week, but Americans are mostly yawning at the prospect.

``The impact in the United States is far less significant than the impact surrounding Europe itself,'' said Mark Aspey, managing director of a unit at British bank HSBC Holdings that arranges currency transportation logistics for U.S. banks and companies. ``We're not running around at midnight on the first replacing cash in ATMs. They are.''

The euro is on center stage in Europe as countries prepare to put away lira, francs and marks and adopt just one currency for the first time since the Roman Empire.

Bologna, for example, plans to burn a giant copy of its retiring lira coin on midnight Jan. 1, as part of the northern Italian city's traditional puppet-burning festival. Thieves are also lining up for a piece of the action. In Italy, robbers swooped down on ropes into a Milan bank and stole about half a million euros ($455,000) in cash.

But Americans don't care as much because most only need euros if they are traveling in Europe -- and tourism to the contient has dropped sharply since the September hijack attacks. Also, the urgency is blunted since travelers are being told that many stores, hotels and restaurants there will accept the legacy currencies until at least the end of February.

``There have been some inquiries but it ends fairly quickly when people find out the currency won't be available until Jan. 2,'' said Chris Taylor, who is in charge of Bank of New York Co. Inc.'s 228 New York branches. ``The people who buy foreign exchange through us are people who are traveling and need pocket currency.'' The bank provides foreign currency through a deal with American Express Corp.

Big U.S. companies with a global reach, meanwhile, have sophisticated foreign exchange units that have been preparing for and doing business in the euro since 1998. It also has been possible for some time to keep a bank account in euros and buy euro travelers checks.

But despite the absence of a U.S. euro craze, the notes -- though not Europe's popular coin ``starter kits'' -- have arrived here and big banks like J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. Inc. and Citigroup Inc. say they will sell the currency at certain branches by Jan. 2 or 3.

Still, the sums coming in might not make a bank robber's eyes gleam. Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America Corp., which runs a currency transportation logistics business like HSBC, said its big financial customers are ordering shipments of between 100,000 euros ($88,183) and one million euros ($881,834) to hold in inventory.

``We have seen very strong demand and already have taken a number of orders from major financial institutions in the North American market that we deal with,'' said Michael DeRocher, manager of Bank of America's global wholesale bank notes business. ``From different parts of the world we also have seen a large amount of repatriation of the legacy currencies.''

Bank of America has set up seminars to train its financial customers about how to detect fraudulent euros and on the logistics of repatriation, or getting the old money back to its home European country.

U.S. banks will accept old European notes -- they deal in notes since coins are costly to ship -- until Feb. 28. Bank of New York has set up boxes at its branches where people can donate their legacy European coins and bills to a fund for victims of the Sept. 11 attack on the World Trade Center.

Marketing departments at other U.S. banks like Wachovia Corp. also have sent customers brochures explaining the euro and devoted part of their corporate web sites to it.

``We've been preparing since 1998 to get our systems in order and let our customers know (the euro) is coming, so for us it is a non-issue,'' Wachovia spokesman Don Vecchiarello said. ``We're totally ready.''

Others here are making an even bigger splash to toast the euro's arrival. The European Commission's Washington D.C. office is having a blowout party on Dec. 31, with a television satellite feed to watch other euro celebrations at home, euro tee-shirts and mousepads, and free-flowing alcohol and food.

``Our main message for American citizens traveling is that the euro will facilitate their lives so they will not have to bother exchanging 12 currencies,'' said Willy Helin, a European Commission spokesman in Washington.

($1 equals 1.134 Euro)