Tall tale of a bank merger: no more lollipops

This month, BankBoston and Fleet complete their merger to create the nation's eighth-largest bank with assets totalling $180 billion. Twenty-three dollars of that used to be mine.

When we moved here, BankBoston couldn't have been nicer. A charming woman at a mahogany desk laughed at my jokes and helped us open a checking account, a savings account, and a little passbook account for my daughter. They even gave her a cherry lollipop.

A year later, when it was clear that I wouldn't maintain a $50,000 minimum balance, I could only talk through a metal grate to a man who used to work at the Division of Motor Vehicles. And he wanted the lollipop back. I should have switched banks then, but I couldn't save up enough for the exit fee.

The merger was announced last March with great fanfare by a couple of trim, graying men who look like they're always surrounded by mahogany and women who laugh at their jokes. Both promised that the marriage of their banks would be a boon for consumers by cutting fat and adding new services.

One of the first new services they're adding is cutting fat like me from their bank. Of course, I can hang around, but I have to pay $1 per transaction, $2.95 per minute to wait in line, and 35 cents to read their billboards on passing buses. The complete fee schedule is available for $9.95 (plus $3.95 for shipping and handling) and runs on for several volumes in language that any Harvard lawyer can understand ($425 per hour).

I should have known these new "market efficiencies" were going to squeeze me out of BankBoston. After all, they'd already squeezed out the space in their name. The new conglomerate will be called FleetBoston, and if the trend continues, it will soon be known as FleetBostonCommerceCommunityMorganFidelity, like some well-heeled widow who collects her husbands' names in a trail of ambiguous grief.

Even before this promising engagement, BankBoston was one of those huge banks with branches on every street corner. Fleeing the new high fees, I recently switched to a much smaller bank with several twigs. They don't have any ATMs, but if you call a man named Spike, he'll meet you under the Roxbury bridge and see what he can do. If you're late with a payment, they offer a service called Free Checking Out.

It's difficult to assess the impact of these continuing bank mergers for consumers. People who have no trouble maintaining a $50,000 minimum balance regularly peer down and assure us that it's a good thing. But at some point, when Alan Greenspan tries to raise interest rates, the country's surviving bank might just turn around and raise his fees.

*Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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