March 17, 2007 in Business

Wal-Mart drops banking license bid

Marcus Kabel Associated Press
 

Wal-Mart’s plan

Their fourth effort at a banking license since 1999, Wal-Mart said its latest bid was not to offer branch banking for consumers but to open an industrial bank to save millions of dollars it now pays outside banks to handle credit and debit card payments in its stores.

Stymied by a phalanx of opponents from big banks to unions and dogged by conflicting messages about its intentions, Wal-Mart withdrew a bid for a banking license Friday and said it would find other ways to serve customers’ financial needs.

The world’s largest retailer withdrew its application to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. for a bank charter after nearly two years of what it called “manufactured controversy.”

It was the Bentonville, Ark.-based company’s fourth failure since 1999 to open a bank, after previous efforts in Oklahoma, California and Canada were stopped by regulators or lawmakers.

Wal-Mart repeatedly said its latest bid was about payment processing, not branch banking for consumers. It said it wanted to open an industrial bank to save millions of dollars it now pays outside banks to handle credit and debit card payments in its stores.

Supporters said it could help reduce fees and costs for consumers and that the industry is in need of more competition.

But a vocal front of opponents including big and small banks, unions, farmers, convenience store owners and Realtors protested to the FDIC and Congress that Wal-Mart was secretly planning to start branch banking, which they claimed would concentrate too much economic power in one company.

The withdrawal came one day after a Republican member of the House Financial Services Committee accused Wal-Mart of “a pattern of deception and dishonesty” about its banking intentions.

Rep. Paul Gillmor, of Ohio, released an e-mail that showed Wal-Mart was renegotiating leases with outside banks in its stores to preserve Wal-Mart’s right to offer a range of financial services, including mortgages and loans. Wal-Mart said those lease terms were nothing new.

Wal-Mart’s president of financial services, Jane Thompson, denied that the revelation had anything to do with dropping the bank application.

Thompson said Wal-Mart started thinking about dropping the bid after the FDIC in late January extended a moratorium on all industrial bank applications while Congress debates new legislation on those charters.

But Thompson acknowledged that critics’ attacks on the industrial bank were a burden on Wal-Mart’s plans to continue expanding in financial services for low-income customers.

“Our thought was, as we wanted to get a stronger message out to our customers in particular about new services, each time we do that we would be hit with what we called the manufactured controversy over ‘we’re going to ruin the banking system,’ ” Thompson said.

“We said, it’s just getting in our way. We need to put the application behind us,” she said in a telephone interview.

Thompson said the potential cost savings of in-house payment processing paled compared with the new business it is growing with financial services.

Wal-Mart now offers payroll check cashing, express bill payment, money orders, money transfers and Wal-Mart branded credit cards.

Wal-Mart will be offering new financial services and products this year, Thompson said, while declining to be more specific.

Wal-Mart is targeting customers who are “underserved” by traditional banks, Thompson said, many of them unable to afford the fees that banks charge for basic services or unable to maintain minimum balances between paychecks.

Wal-Mart has 2 million to 3 million transactions a week for its existing financial services, she said.

One area Wal-Mart is staying away from is payday lending, a practice that has come under attack from some lawmakers for high interest rates charged for short-term loans.

“It’s had such a connotation that we decided, let’s go for some (services) that don’t have so much controversy,” Thompson said.

Opponents of the bank bid cheered Wal-Mart’s decision as a victory for their efforts.

“From this day forward, no one will ever doubt the power of our grassroots movement, the strength of our allies, and the commitment the American people have to change Wal-Mart and America for the better,” said Chris Kofinis, spokesman for union-funded WakeUpWalMart.com

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