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Bank of Wal-Mart

Commentator Robert Reich

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

LISA NAPOLI: After a hearing Tuesday, it's now up to the FDIC to decide whether Wal-Mart can go into the banking business. The retail giant wants to start a bank so it could reduce costs on the millions of payments the company processes each year.

Marketplace commentator Robert Reich thinks it's obvious what the FDIC should do.


ROBERT REICH: Wal-Mart says all it wants to do is trim costs on the millions of payments the company processes each year. It says it has no intention of expanding into other banking services. But most people don't believe Wal-Mart. They see this move as the Wal-Mart camel's nose under the tent of commercial banking.

I say: Let Wal-Mart under the tent. Commercial banking is now one of the stodgiest and least-competitive parts of the US economy. Fees and prices are way too high, service is lousy. The industry needs a shakeup. And I guarantee you Wal-Mart's low-price business model will do just that.

Bear in mind also that many Wal-Mart customers don't have much money. They need cut-rate banking services. Many of these people are excluded from mainstream banking. Wal-Mart could help them.

Critics say Wal-Mart is so big — 3,900 stores, representing 10 percent of US retail economy — that if it entered commercial banking it would wipe out the competition. Then it would turn around and raise banking fees. Come on. You really think Wal-Mart would wipe out the Bank of America? MBNA? Citigroup? No way.

Other critics say a Wal-Mart bank would put community banks out of business. That's baloney, too. Community banks have been crying wolf for years. They fought deregulation that allowed nationwide banking, saying that would put them out of business. But they are still thriving. They provide personal service that the big banks can't provide, and they fill an important niche.

And then there's the charge that if Wal-Mart got into banking it would subject depositor's money to unreasonable risk. It could force its banking arm to lend it money at low interest rates. Or, it would drain its bank of capital if it fell on hard times. Well, that danger is just as likely, if not more likely, at GM's banking arm, or GE's banking arm, or Wal-Mart rival Target's bank. All of these commercial giants are in the banking business. The federal government ought to make sure all of them keep their bank deposits separate from their commercial businesses. That's no reason to single out Wal-Mart.

Look: I don't like the fact that Wal-Mart pays its employees low wages and squeezes every last cent out of its suppliers. But give credit where credit is due: Wal-Mart does cut prices. And that means it can give credit where credit is most needed: Among the nation's poor, who need cut-rate banking services more than anyone.

LISA NAPOLI: Robert Reich teaches public policy at the University of California at Berkeley.

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