"Wal-Mart is an abortion."
That was veteran bank analyst Dick Bove, raising a few gentle objections to an article of mine.
We at American Banker knew we might take some heat when we decided to name a former Wal-Mart executive as our most innovative person in banking this year. Bankers and the retail behemoth have been frequently at odds, to say the least.
I detailed the retailer's banking ambitions and accomplishments in a lengthy profile of former Wal-Mart financial services chief Jane Thompson. The article, published Thursday, had already garnered varied reactions — though none quite as blunt as Bove's response.
When I picked up my ringing phone late Thursday, Bove identified himself, told me he had to hang up soon for a conference call, and then, without a pause, launched into an impassioned monologue detailing his criticisms of Wal-Mart's financial services operations.
Bove, an often-staunch defender of banks and bankers, asserts that the industry is still far better at providing servicers to low-income customers than Wal-Mart ever will be. Despite the innovations American Banker lauded it for, Bove argues that the retailer actually creates an impediment to getting its customers into safe, high-quality depository institutions.
For seven minutes, he proceeded to lay out several criticisms of Wal-Mart and its long-nurtured efforts to get into banking by any means possible. The retailer does not have to comply with burdensome banking regulations, he said; it does not lend, as banks do; it charges people for cashing their checks, whereas banks cash their customers' checks for free. (As the article noted, many people do not have bank accounts or do not use them regularly, preferring instead to use Wal-Mart or other nonbank financial services companies.)
Bove also raised the bitterly-contested issue of debit card interchange, or "swipe fees," which the banking industry is still smarting over.
Wal-Mart has been one of the loudest and most powerful advocates for regulation of the fees banks charge merchants when customers pay with credit and debit cards. It won a victory this year when the Federal Reserve capped the fees that merchants pay on debit card payments as part of a regulation that is expected to cost the banking industry more than $5 billion in annual revenue.
On the phone Thursday, Bove raised a common banking industry argument — where are all the savings retailers promised customers when they lobbied the government to cap swipe fees? (While some retailers have admitted that the policy change has helped their bottom line, I was also starting to wonder if the analyst is a disgruntled Wal-Mart customer.)
In what I initially thought would be his greatest condemnation, Bove flatly dismissed Wal-Mart as "not a bank."
But then he signed off with his abortion analogy. Your move, Mike Duke.