The Other ‘M’ Word

America has heard a lot of talk this month about “meltdowns” and the financial calamities that await us if the Congress doesn’t act soon and with a singular voice that our credit markets are going to be all right.

But have you all been paying attention to what’s taking place off the stock exchange? First it was Bank of America’s announcement that it was buying Merrill Lynch. Then Washington Mutual collapsed and will no doubt get folded into another entity. Then Citigroup bought banking giant Wachovia.

Detecting a pattern here? All the major customer banks in this country are consolidating into so-called superbanks, or the other ‘M’ word — monopolies.

The Consumer Federation of America is not so sure this is a good idea. Much like the airline industry, banks compete for customers’ attention and their dollars. They offer neat perks such as free checking or no fees on withdrawals from ATMs. Didn’t like the rate your bank’s credit card offered you? No problem, just threaten to take your business elsewhere. See, that’s the beauty of so many mom-and-pop banks to go along with the mega ones — we could price-shop and get a better deal. The Federation fears we’ll lose that ability, to some extent or another, and I’m inclined to think they’re correct.

The jury is still out for me on whether I like this move or not. I do know one thing, however — a functioning bank sure beats no bank; or long lines of angry customers on bank runs to retrieve their savings, like the Indy Bank episode earlier this year. That’s bad news, and something we can ill afford. In fact, we’ve been seeing secret bank runs now, as individuals try to get their deposits under the FDIC-insured $100,000 level in order to have some guaranteed protections. Raising that deposit rate, as both candidates have endorsed, is a good idea.

But one final political point: For decades, I’ve heard Democrats rail against the power of “Big Oil” and “Big Business” and “Big HMOs.” It now appears that “Big Banks” will be added to their litany, and Democrats will only have themselves to blame. But they hope you will forget that minor sticking point as they demagogue the issue in future tirades and accusations of bank greed. They won’t remember this move was a matter of sheer survival, so it’s up to us to remind them …


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