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Global Retail Giant, Wal-Mart, Plans to Start its Own Banking Services


The world's largest retailer, U.S.-based Wal-Mart, is hoping to begin its own banking business soon. Critics are concerned it could put some commercial banks out of business, while those in favor think it would give consumers more banking choices. An arm of the U.S. government that supervises banks (Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation, or FDIC) has been hearing testimony on whether to grant Wal-Mart limited banking rights.

Wal-Mart has conquered the market in discount shopping -- serving more than 138-million customers weekly in 16 countries worldwide. These include Asian countries such as China, South Korea, and Japan, and Latin American nations including Argentina, Mexico and Brazil.

But Wal-Mart says it will limit its banking services to the United States. It wants to open up a special kind of bank that would allow it to process electronic payments from debit and credit card transactions and checks, instead of paying a small processing fee to outside banks. Given its $300 billion a year in sales, that would save the company millions of dollars. Wal-Mart says it will pass the savings to its customers by lowering its prices.

Critics -- including other retailers, banking lobbying groups, and consumer organizations -- are critical of Wal-Mart's business practices, saying it puts smaller companies of out business and ships jobs to overseas markets.

Robert McGarrah, Jr., is with the largest trade union group in the U.S., the AFL-CIO. He says, "It's a company that refuses to play by the rules and destroys its communities by crushing its competitors. We believe if Wal-Mart is allowed to open a bank, the bank will behave in a similar matter."

Politicians are also expressing concern, including Congresswoman Stephanie Tubbs Jones. "I believe everybody is here because of the concerns of the activities of Wal-Mart, its size, its business model, and the impact it will have on banking and commerce," said the congresswoman.

While critics worry Wal-Mart could drive community banks out of business, supporters applaud its move into banking, saying consumers will benefit from lower fees and prices in an industry they think needs more vigorous competition.

Peter Morici, is a business professor at the University of Maryland. "If Wal-Mart can offer depositors higher interest on their money than community banks, then, why not? Community banks have a lot of overhead, they're not terribly efficient in their conduct of business and if Wal-Mart can give you a checking account that pays you 3 or 4 percent interest, [rather] than a fraction of one percent the way many community banks do, then why not?"

Jane Thompson, President of Wal-Mart's Financial Services, says the firm has no plans to go further by becoming a commercial or community bank. "We have absolutely no plans to open bank branches."

But Peter Morici says the move by Wal-Mart might only be a first step. "It would not be a large leap for Wal-Mart to go from having industrial banks, so it has access to the payment system, to becoming a full-fledged bank. In the process, it would be able to do things much more cost effectively than many community banks do," says Morici.

And Wal-Mart is not the only retailer trying to get into the banking business. One of its competitors, U.S.-based Target, and other firms, such as General Electric, and several car manufacturers have opened in-house banks. But Wal-Mart tends to dominate every field it goes into, and it is expected to be successful at banking as well.

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