Why Wal-Mart Is No Bank of America

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The U.S. banking quadropoly of Bank of America, Citigroup, Wells Fargo, and JPMorgan Chase has worn out its welcome with the public, but don't look for Amazon.com, Google, or even Wal-Mart Stores to offer a meaningful alternative.

Wal-Mart has long aspired to enter the banking business. While pre-crisis efforts by the retailer were shot down, Wal-Mart is back at it through a partnership with American Expressunveiled Monday called Bluebird.


While Rochdale Securities analyst Dick Bove argued in a note Monday that Bluebird does pose a threat to the established banks, it’s hard to see Wal-Mart and Amex really offering a viable alternative to consumers.

While the partnership clearly wants to pitch itself as a white knight, arguing in a statement that it is “expensive to be poor,” and that Bluebird “rights many of the wrongs that plague the market today,” who do they think they are kidding? If Occupy Wall Street couldn’t get people who hate big banks to switch to smaller ones — even sympathetic people like me — why should Wal-Mart or American Express be any different? The power of inertia is far too great, and it is aided by the fact that all the automatic deposit and billpay customers set up through their banks are extremely costly and time consuming to undo.

Amazon and Google , meanwhile, don’t look to be trying to compete with banks at this point, even though they are entering the lending business to spur sales of existing products.

Rochdale’s Bove points to private label credit cards by companies such as Home Depot and Sears Holdings to argue these efforts to boost sales by extending credit always end badly.

But not all private label credit card businesses have failed. Alliance Data Systems has had success with its private label business, and General Electric, which initially wanted to sell the business, now finds it to be one of the most profitable GE has.

What’s more, Google and Amazon are offering credit to small businesses, not consumers. That ought to allow them to be more selective, since the supply of credit to small business is especially tight. Nonetheless, these efforts are modest in scope and so don’t pose a threat to the big banks.

In fact, the same could be said of Wal-Mart . Getting around banking regulation proved so easy in the run-up to the 2008 crisis, many assume the next crisis will come from a similar exploitation of loopholes in the rules. Building a bank in secret, however, isn’t likely to prove so easy for several years at the very least. That is especially the case if you are a giant like Amazon, Google or Wal-Mart. Regulators have broader powers that they did before the crisis, and they are likely to intervene before any new shadow banks get too big.

What Amazon, Google, and Wal-Mart are more likely to accomplish is to give more nimble banking players like Wells Fargo some smart ideas they will then be able to properly exploit.

—By TheStreet.com’s Dan Freed

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