Wednesday, June 23, 2010

One More Worry for Banks: Wal-Mart


America's biggest banks are in retreat, tightening lending, increasing fees, and closing branches. But one company still wants to become your neighborhood bank: Wal-Mart.

While the banking sector has been in turmoil, Wal-Mart has aggressively courted customers' pocketbooks, partnering with financial services companies to offer money transfers, check cashing and bill payments, and putting virtual checking accounts -- refillable pre-paid debit cards -- in the hands of more than two million customers.

The company downplays its desire to garner a banking license, but recent changes in the banking and regulatory landscape has only increased the eventual likelihood of a Wal-Mart Bank. The latest evidence that Wal-Mart plans to continue its push into financial services was the news last week that it had taken an equity stake in Green Dot, which manages the retailer's prepaid debit cards and is currently seeking regulatory approval to acquire a small Utah-based bank for $15.7 million.

Wal-Mart has attempted to acquire its own banking license several times since 1999. In 2007 it dropped plans to acquire an industrial-bank charter in Utah after heavy lobbying by the banking industry. Banks argued that Wal-Mart might steer lending toward favorable suppliers and away from competitors. Had Wal-Mart succeeded, its Utah "industrial loan corporation" could have handled all of its card processing and allowed the retail giant to take deposits and make loans.

While it must now partner with companies like Green Dot and SunTrust (STI, Fortune 500) to provide such services in the United States, this shaving of the profit margin hasn't slowed Wal-Mart (WMT, Fortune 500) down. Last week, Wal-Mart opened its 1,000th "Money Center" and announced that it planned to expand to 500 more stores. It also trumpeted the launching of a Wal-Mart credit card in Canada, where it received a banking license just last month. In Mexico, where it has operated a bank since 2007, Wal-Mart has plans to open up to 150 new branches and take deposits in the checkout line. Back in the U.S., through a partnership with SunTrust, Wal-Mart has nearly doubled the number of bank branches in its stores over the last five years to a total of 83.

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