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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Wednesday, July 20, 2005

Bankers shiver over Wal-Mart's latest plan

By Becky Yerak and Josh Noel
Chicago Tribune


CHICAGO — Bankers are worried that shoppers already attracted to Wal-Mart Stores Inc.'s "everyday low prices" on general merchandise may soon have another reason to go to the world's largest retailer: always low banking rates.

Wal-Mart is seeking permission from Utah's financial institutions department and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. to operate a bank that will enable it to recapture fees that it pays third-party institutions to process the 140 million debit, credit and electronic check transactions at its stores each month.

Cost-conscious Wal-Mart said it intends to pass on the savings to shoppers but said it has no plans to open bank branches or lend money. Wal-Mart noted that it leases space to more than 1,000 bank branches in its 3,197 U.S. stores and is "actively seeking new financial institutions as tenants."

But Wal-Mart is one to never say never.

Asked whether shoppers could someday shop for mortgages at Wal-Mart, financial services director Tom McLean replied, "We continue to look for what makes sense to the customer."

Indeed, bankers are wary.

They worry that the discount chain will ultimately end up accepting deposits and doling out loans.

"We're concerned that over time Wal-Mart will change its business plan and engage in retail banking operations," said Karen Thomas, executive vice president for government relations for the 5,000-member Independent Community Bankers of America.

The retailer, which is based in Bentonville, Ark., already offers basic money services in many of its stores.

It began testing payroll check-cashing services, money orders and wire transfers in its stores in 2002.

Three years later, money orders and wire transfers are available virtually chainwide and payroll check cashing is found in Wal-Mart supercenters in most states.

"We went in, and we just cut the prices," Wal-Mart Chief Executive Officer Lee Scott said. "If someone is charging you a percentage, charging $10 to cash a check, we'll cash it for $3. That's a big difference. We still make a fair profit."

Wal-Mart, for example, typically charges $3 to cash a payroll check up to $1,000; many rival check-cashing services, currency exchanges or payday lenders will charge $6 or more. Meanwhile, a money order at Wal-Mart will cost 46 cents, compared with anywhere from 75 cents to $1.10 at other service providers. A wire transfer on up to $500 will set back Wal-Mart shoppers $9.46, compared with at least $15 elsewhere.

"We're doing a lot of business," Scott said.

Wal-Mart saves its shoppers who use the services $2 million a week, the company said.

Putting it another way, a person with take-home pay of $300 a week who cashes the check, wires money and buys a money order, will save $450 a year if they use Wal-Mart instead of their competitors, said McLean, the Wal-Mart financial services director.

The so-called industrial bank that Wal-Mart is seeking to start in Salt Lake City operates like a bank with federal deposit insurance and can issue credit cards, take deposits and make loans. The only thing it cannot do is offer standard checking accounts if its assets exceed $100 million, according to The Associated Press.