Bigger Mergers = Bigger Banks = Bigger Fees

If you think the era of mega banks means better services, cheaper checking, and higher interest for deposits, forget it.

Au contraire, the costs of bank services "will continue to go up," says Warren Heller, research director for Veribanc, a Wakefield, Mass., firm that studies banks.

Last week's $83 billion merger proposal by Citicorp and Travelers Group had front pages buzzing about an era of one-stop shopping for financial services - "the new paradigm for the era of the universal bank."

Being able to get a loan and buy a mutual fund at the same company is convenient, to be sure.

But for many consumers, price and quality rank high, and "costs are definitely going up, and that's not about to stop," Mr. Heller says.

"When large banks announce mergers, the bankers never talk about doing so to reduce the cost of service charges" to consumers, says Jean Ann Fox, director of consumer protection at the Consumer Federation of American (CFA) in Washington.

"Rather, they always say that they are merging to cut expenses between themselves," Ms. Fox says. Banks "nickel and dime you" on the likes of checking fees and penalty charges.

The feeing frenzy stems from a major change in operations.

A decade ago, banks' primary earnings came from the "interest rate spread" - the difference between what they charge you for a loan and what they pay you for savings deposits.

As interest rates have dropped in recent years, banks have watched that spread shrink, Heller says.

What's left? Service fees.

"Fees are rising," but in part that reflects the willingness of banks to provide more "a la carte [individualized] services," says Janet Eissenstat, spokeswoman for the American Bankers Association (ABA) in Washington.

Nationally, fees on basic accounts, such as basic checking, have stayed in the $3 to $5 range for the past decade, the ABA says.

But it is true that rates tend to be higher in big cities and among larger banks, Ms. Eissenstat says. And the trend - underscored by the Citicorp/Travelers deal, the biggest merger ever - is toward larger banks.

For consumers, "you have to shop around," says Fox of the CFA. "Banks count on inertia - that you will be unwilling" to take your business elsewhere.

Small banks and those in smaller communities tend to offer lower fees, she says. Credit unions cost the least.

In many cities, at least one bank offers free checking. Many consumers are not aware that they can establish accounts with banks far from home. Bank Rate Monitor of North Palm Beach, Fla., lists banks with the lowest rates nationally on its Web site (, which also lists the lowest credit card rates.

Example: Cascade Bank in Seattle: free checking, no minimum balance required to avoid fees, $15 on a bounced check (425-339-5500). Washington Mutual/American Savings Bank in Los Angeles offers free checking ($1 minimum to avoid fees), charges $18 for a bounced check (800-788-7000). Bank United, in Dallas: no-minimum-checking (800-366-7378).

And many people have discovered that they can earn the best interest in money-market mutual fund accounts (paying 5 percent or so). Check-writing on those accounts is often limited to amounts of $500 or more.

Finally, for investors, the big Citicorp merger means financial stocks, including banks, continue to look attractive. But some worry about the low interest-rate environment, which makes it harder for banks to squeeze out earnings gains.

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