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Banks 'Too Big to Fail' Have Grown Even Bigger
"There's been a significant consolidation among the big banks, and it's kind of hollowing out the banking system," said Mark Zandi, chief economist of Moody's Economy.com. "You'll be left with very large institutions and small ones that fill in the cracks. But it'll be difficult for the mid-tier institutions to thrive."
"The oligopoly has tightened," he added.
Federal officials and advocacy groups are just beginning to study the impact of the crisis on consumers, but there is some evidence that the mergers are creating new challenges for ordinary Americans.
In the last quarter, the top four banks raised fees related to deposits by an average of 8 percent, according to research from the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. Striving to stay competitive, smaller banks lowered their fees by an average of 12 percent.
"None of us are saying dismember these institutions. But you do want to create a system that allows for others to grow, where no one has an oligopolistic power at the expense of others who might be able to provide financial services to consumers," said Richard Fisher, president of the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas.
Normally, when faced with price increases, consumers simply switch. But industry officials said that is not so easy when it comes to financial services.
In Santa Cruz, Calif., Wells Fargo, Bank of America and J.P. Morgan Chase hold three-quarters of the deposit market. Each firm was given tens of billions of dollars in bailout funds to help it swallow other banks.
The rest of the market, which consists of a handful of tiny community banks, cannot match the marketing power of the bigger banks. Instead, presidents of the smaller companies said, they must offer more personalized service and adapt to technological changes more quickly to entice customers. Some acknowledged it can be a tough fight.
Wells Fargo is "really, really good at the way they cross-sell and get their tentacles around you," said Richard Hofstetter, president of Lighthouse Bank, whose only branch is in Santa Cruz. "Their customers have multiple areas of their financial life involved with Wells Fargo. If you have a checking account and an ATM and a credit card and a home-equity line and automatic bill payments . . . to change that is a major undertaking."
Wells Fargo, J.P. Morgan and Bank of America declined to comment for this article.
Last October, when the Fed was arranging the merger between Wells Fargo and Wachovia, it identified six other metropolitan regions in which the combined company would either exceed the Justice Department's antitrust guidelines or hold more than a third of an area's deposits. But the central bank thought local competition in each of those places was sufficient to allow the merger to go through, documents show.
Camden Fine, president of the Independent Community Bankers of America, said those comments reveal the government's preferential treatment of big banks. He doubted whether the Fed would approve the merger of community banks if the combined company ended up controlling more a third of the market.