One answer to bank crisis: Wal-Mart
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TEXT OF COMMENTARY
Bob Moon: Citigroup and AIG are still teetering on the edge of failure and credit markets are still tight. So what should we try next to stabilize the financial services industry? Well, economist Todd Buchholz suggests the answer might be letting a new player into the game.
Todd Buchholz: We’ve run out of escape routes for our banking crisis. Citibank has been swallowed up by the American taxpayer — and by sheiks in Saudi Arabia and Abu Dhabi. Bank of America can’t digest Merrill Lynch and the million-dollar window treatments in Merrill’s CEO suite.
President Obama has already corralled the big three: Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett, Prince Walid bin-Talal. But one more player, perfectly positioned, has not been called on: Wal-Mart. Yes, our national retailer offers three things in short supply: cash, respect, and a super-sharp pencil when it comes to cost control.
A few years ago, Wal-Mart tried to enter banking but was hounded by social critics and fearful competitors worrying that the retail giant was simply too powerful and too anti-union to get certified as a bank.
But this anti-Wal-Mart bias makes no sense in banking. Wal-Mart critics accuse the company of cannibalizing local downtown merchants. But most Americans don’t drive to a downtown bank anyway. Critics hate Wal-Mart for buying too many socks and shoes from China. Well, let’s face it, America’s banks already depend on China’s thrifty savers. Critics condemn Wal-Mart’s non-union status. Well, I’ve never seen a unionized teller at a Citibank window, have you? I don’t think ATM robots are unionized either.
Finally, Wal-Mart-haters accuse the firm of wasting natural resources, you know, too much Styrofoam and plastic. I’m sure we could get Wal-Mart bankers to promise not to give away lollipops with plastic wrappers on them.
The point is, the U.S. needs some strong entities to enter banking, so we don’t have to prop up failures or beg foreign sheiks and potentates for help. Moreover, Wal-Mart might actually help customers. Its 3,800 stores have already driven down the price of wire transfers and check-cashing.
Maybe they could drive down the cost of the endless bailouts coming from Washington.
Let’s face it: This would be a tough call for President Obama. But, hey, we’re all looking for the real change he promised — more than spare change, I hope.
Moon: Todd Buchholz is the former White House economic advisor to the first President Bush. His latest book is “New Ideas From Dead CEOs.”
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