Clash of the Titans

I’m generally uneasy when any entity winds up with as much concentrated power as Wal-Mart. So my head tells me to root for regulators to reject the global retailing behemoth’s pleas this week for permission to start dabbling in the banking business. Then again, we’re not talking about Wal-Mart going up against the corner hardware store. We’re talking about the banking industry—an industry that arrogantly clings to a shameless screw-the-consumer business model filled with unnecessary user fees and handy accounting tricks that somehow never seem to work in the customer's favor. So I must admit there’s a certain gut appeal to the thought of the cost obsessive Wal-Mart jumping into the banking game and forcing a little industry-wide soul-searching. Currently, Wal-Mart is asking only to set up a bank that would process credit card transactions, but critics insist--and, are probably correct--that such a move would inevitably lead to the retailer’s entry into consumer banking. And say what you will about Sam Walton’s evil empire, it unquestionably knows how to cut the fat (in this case, think absurdly high ATM fees) out of whatever business it touches. The New York Times’ David Leonhardt did a compelling column on this issue a few weeks ago. Still, I realize that a banking industry controlled from Bentonville would have its downsides, so financial experts feel free to send along your thoughts on this. No gratuitous anti-Wal-Mart profanity, please. --Michelle