As much as banks would like to think of themselves as friendly oracles of financial wisdom, consumers remain stubbornly skeptical. The merger wave seems to have exacerbated nagging feelings of mistrust.
Where bank executives see economies of scale and greater shareholder value, customers see rising fees and dwindling service.
"If these mergers are good for the customers, the banks haven't done a particularly good job explaining that," said Kenneth Klegon, a Lansing, Mich., financial planner. "I have not heard any conversation along the lines of, 'Oh boy, isn't that wonderful, look at all the extra service and lower fees we're going to get.'"
No publicity campaign can wash away hard feelings caused by real or perceived service lapses, so managers have their work cut out for them. In fact, proving to customers that change is in their best interest may be the single biggest management challenge for the new megabanks.
For a snapshot of consumer attitudes, American Banker interviewed people around the country about their financial habits, aspirations, and concerns. Our respondents said they valued convenience and low prices, and grew discouraged when their bank ignored a phone call or erred in a statement.
"People still like some of the personalized service they get from community banks, so I'm not sure they're going to embrace the one-stop shopping concept," said Jeffrey Vernon, a financial adviser in Clarendon Hills, Ill.
Mr. Klegon, whose firm is called Financial Management Associates, said, "People are looking for the best options, and it's not clear to them that the best options are all going to be contained under one roof."
None of the people surveyed had switched institutions in response to merger news, though several said they had done so because of dissatisfactory service. One financial planner called it "disturbing" that more clients were not asking questions about the mergers. "Most people wait until the first extra bank fee hits their statement, then contact the institution and say, 'Hey, what's up?'" said Hope Feinglass, a Chicago- based adviser.
The tenor of the interviews is consistent with a growing body of research indicating people are skeptical about big banks and putting too many eggs in their baskets. An April survey by Synergistics Research Corp. of Atlanta found that 15% of 1,011 consumers polled had most of their household's financial accounts with a single institution, and only one in six of those polled looked favorably on one-stop shopping.
Peter T. Palion, a certified financial planner in New York, said his clients were "not worried or concerned" about mergers harming their portfolios. But he did speculate that deals like Citigroup could lead to confusion and an erosion of trust. "Someone walks into a bank and all of a sudden has to stop in the lobby and think, 'Where am I-at a brokerage house or a bank?'" he said.
Here is what consumers had to say.
Sharleen Cowan, 48, and Stuart Taub, 52, Restaurant owners, New York
Sharleen Cowan and Stuart Taub, Manhattan restaurateurs and parents of 8-year-old Nicholas, do not share the anti-merger sentiment of many consumers.
"If anything, mergers are better for the small businessman," said Mr. Taub, who handles the family's business and personal finances. "If you're financially sound, you can do everything" under one roof.
The couple opened Sharz Cafe & Wine Bar two years ago, and business is booming. Reservations are a must on Friday and Saturday nights, and the restaurant does $750,000 a year in business.
After a Chase Manhattan branch manager from a nearby York Ave. and 86th street came calling two months ago, the couple turned into one-stop- shopping converts. Mr. Taub signed up for a $50,000 line of credit, opened business and personal checking accounts, and switched the restaurant's Visa and Mastercard merchant business, and the couple's personal credit card busines to Chase. The selling points were personal service and an offer of a quarter-point discount on the line of credit for switching over other accounts.
"Lynn, the branch manager actually came over here and filled out the paperwork," Mr. Taub said. "We sat outside, and I had a glass of wine." Chase also offered to waive service fees for the first six months.
First USA and Republic National Bank, which had handled the family and restaurant's credit card and checking businesses, did not offer to match Chase's bid, he said.
Mr. Taub and Ms. Cowan are seeking a location for Sharz 2d, and say securing a bank line is difficult. "Banks don't like to lend to restaurants," Mr. Taub said. "They're too flighty."
Sharz stopped taking American Express two months ago. "They charge 3.5%- I pay Visa and Mastercard 1.9%. Over a year, that's $4,500 in savings," Mr. Taub said. When American Express complained that the restaurant was not advertising the card, "we said 'Who needs them?'" Mr. Taub said.
The couple reads business publications and gets financial advice from a friend who is a financial planner at Merrill Lynch. Their income has jumped since the restaurant opened, so they have moved to a bigger rental apartment and paid down a good chunk of credit card debt. Buying a home will have to wait: there is still Nicholas' private school tuition and then college to consider.
Kenneth E. Johnson, 76; Retired business executive; Savannah, Ga.
Mr. Johnson spends his retirement assiduously studying his investments.
At the Savannah house he shares with his second wife, he keeps his financial data up-to-date with Quicken software. He watches financial news cable channels and reads Kiplinger's magazine, Financial World, and more. He uses his knowledge to "collaborate" with his broker of many years.
Mr. Johnson retired from the Chicago building industry in 1985, taking his pension in a lump sum. For a while, he had it invested with brokers from Northern Trust Co., whom he described as "high-quality people" who were too focused on capital preservation.
Mr. Johnson's taste for bank investment services soured a few years ago, after his first wife died and NationsBank Corp., the co-trustee of her estate, insisted he put all the money in its proprietary mutual funds, he said.
"They just didn't give me a choice," he said. "They were not interested in anything other than their own program, and I think that's a fearful thing."
At Mr. Johnson's request, NationsBank resigned as trustee. "I don't have much confidence in bankers as investors," he said, though he does maintain a traditional banking relationship with NationsBank.
With more than $2 million of assets, Mr. Johnson likes to do business with a diversity of institutions. His investments include REITS, mutual funds, bonds, common stock, preferred stock, and property. "The one-stop thing never really meant a lot to me," he said. Even though he can have a credit card through his broker, he prefers to get it elsewhere.
When NationsBank bought Barnett Banks Inc., Mr. Johnson said he understood the rationale. But of NationsBank's latest deal he says flatly,"The Bank of America thing doesn't really turn me on."
Mr. Johnson said "worldwide banking" is here to stay, but he worries about banks buying investment companies. In those situations, he says, the banking culture always wins out.
Given the strong economy, Mr. Johnson said, "I'm not in a position where I'm fearful." His goals are to continue to travel regularly and give annual gifts to his three grown children.
-Michael O'D. Moore
Sharon Anthony, 30, Assistant chemistry professor, Beloit, Wis.
Ms. Anthony, single and two years out of graduate school, would like to do all her financial business at one institution "if I could trust them implicitly." The key ingredient would be a personal contact with whom she has rapport, who listens to her, and who advises accordingly.
An instructor at Beloit College, Ms. Anthony has saved about $12,000 on a yearly income of about $30,000. Her personal expenditures are small. She has $40,000 of inherited money invested in the stock market, and hopes to use it as a down payment on a house.
Though she saves money scrupulously, she is "not incredibly interested" in the contents of her portfolio, which includes a $6,000 IRA. To allocate her money, she consults her sister, mother, and a professional financial planner. For individual investments, she relies on her mother's stockbroker.
"I follow their advice very closely," she said. "I studied chemistry, not finance."
Ms. Anthony has $6,000 in a savings account, which she views as a cushion for expenses. She chose her bank, Marshall & Ilsley Trust Co., based on the number of ATMs it has nearby.
She usually finds her bank responsive, but is still smarting from the hour wait it took to open a savings account (it was senior citizens day). Ms. Anthony worries that more mergers will mean less personal service and a "big-brother situation," she said.
-Michael O'D. Moore
Philippa Whalen, 33, Paralegal, New York
Ms. Whalen is suspicious of big institutions, and wonders what attention they could pay to someone like her, who earns less than $40,000.
Even though she does business with Chase Manhattan, she finds smaller institutions more appealingly "hungry" for her business. When trying to refinance her mortgage, Ms. Whalen said Chase's mortgage department did not return her call for a week and a half, making her feel "the small consumer is not that important."
Ms. Whalen also mistrusts of large investment companies. She envisions dealing with a company like Merrill Lynch would be frustrating. "How interested are they going to be in me?" she said.
Ms. Whalen, a 1987 graduate of Barnard College who works at the New York law firm of Simpson Thacher & Bartlett, likes Republic National Bank's advertising. "Their rates are great, but they don't have the reputation" of some of the larger banks, she said. That is a concern, but the driving factor for her is competitive pricing.
Not a methodical saver, Ms. Whalen drops a chunk of money-usually her tax refund-into her Chase savings account, and draws on it to pay for the 100 or so Christmas gifts she buys her family each year. She would like to save more money to buy a larger apartment, travel, and help care for her aging parents.
Ms. Whalen still has a bad taste in her mouth from when Fleet Bank bought her mortgage lender, Natwest Home Mortgage Co., two years ago. The transition was not smooth, she said, and the headaches prompted her to move her checking account from Fleet to Chase Manhattan Bank this year.
Ms. Whalen believes banks could learn a thing or two from American Express Co.
"Every time you talk to an operator, they know what they are talking about," she said. "At a lot of banks its much more like a random shot."
Jack P. McMullan, 23, Software company trainee; Norwalk, Conn.
Mr. McMullan, a recent graduate of the Wharton School, is receptive to the idea of a financial supermarket, but skeptical that banks could fill the bill.
"I would love to do all my shopping at the bank," he said. But because they tend to pay investment product employees less than nonbanks, he reasons banks are likely to be staffed with inferior personnel.
People in the investment products industry are very concerned about their compensation, he said, "so you'd have to wonder why they aren't somewhere" other than a bank. "I would feel safer at Merrill Lynch."
Mr. McMullan, who works for a financial software company, FactSet, based in Greenwich, Conn., makes about $42,000 before bonus. About 8% of his pay goes to a 401(k) account, and the rest he keeps in a no-interest checking account at People's Bank, Bridgeport, Conn.
Until he moved from his parents' home a few months ago, Mr. McMullan had been channeling 15% of his pay into the 401(k) account. Faced with $850 in rent and food bills, he scaled back.
He believes he could profit more from the bull market, but does not feel comfortable taking greater risks, since he does not track his money closely.
"I spend a minimal amount of time thinking about my personal finances," he said. "I don't try to guess the market. I look at what funds are available with my company, and I try to go with the most aggressive ones, since I am young."
Though he is "unfazed" by recent financial megamergers, Mr. McMullan expressed some concern that larger companies might charge higher prices.
Rachel Miller, 31; Public relations; Glen Cove, N.Y.
Ms. Miller, a newlywed who runs her own public relations business, does not like the idea of keeping all of her financial eggs in one basket.
Financial institutions "have such a power over you if you have everything in one place," she says.
Ms. Miller, who works from the home she shares with her husband Matthew, a mortgage banker, maintains accounts at several banks and thrifts, holds more than 20 credit cards, and plans to invest in the stock market without the aid of a broker.
She has a corporate account for her business, a savings account stocked with money set aside for investments, and a checking account for bills and everyday expenses.
If she wants additional financial services, Ms. Miller says, she knows where to find them. She considers it a waste of her time when a bank pushes a product she does not need.
"You're better off having one account or product with one institution," says Ms. Miller, who has managed the household finances since getting married last summer. "I don't want to start thinking about IRAs, insurance, or other products when I'm making a deposit. It just gets overwhelming."
Ms. Miller, whose annual income combined with her husband's is "over $200,000," plans to sink $10,000 into the stock market, but only after extensive research. She tracks several stocks, tuning into CNBC twice a day and keeping logs of their performance. Once she chooses, she plans to invest through an on-line service.
"I'm very turned off by brokers," she says. "With 30% of investors doing it on-line, I find no reason to trust anyone else."
Ms. Miller is not sure she trusts banks either, especially when they tout the advantages of consolidation.
"They try to make you feel that creating a one-stop shopping experience is better for you, but you can't lose sight of the fact that it is very good for the banks, too," she says.
Ms. Miller fears service will worsen as banks get bigger. For 12 years, she has had an account with Fleet Financial Group that required a $10,000 minimum balance. When her balance dropped below the minimum and she did not notice, the bank started charging her fees.
"After banking with someone for 12 years, the least they could have done is picked up the phone and said, 'Ms. Miller, is there something up here,'" she says. "If Fleet got 50 times bigger, my $10,000 account would become 50 times less important to them."
-Olaf de Senerpont Domis
Dan Carroll, 31, Unemployed; New York
Mr. Carroll does not think U.S. bank mergers will improve his bottom line. If banks realize savings, they will "accrue to stockholders, not to the customers," he said.
Mr. Carroll, a bachelor with no dependents, resigned recently from a Dutch investment bank, MeesPieson NV, and plans to go to Stanford University's business school this fall. In deciding among financial institutions, he has but one consideration.
"I'm going to go for the lowest price-I could care less who they're linked up with," he said. "Citi and Travelers doesn't really matter to me, unless I (go to) work for them."
Mr. Carroll has a simple routine for handling his finances. Expenses are paid through a checking account with General Electric's credit union, which he belongs to as a former employee. He funnels the rest of his income to an on-line brokerage account, which he uses for investing in stocks and a money market fund.
After a friend recommends a stock, Mr. Carroll studies it by reading annual and quarterly reports. He usually holds five to 10 stocks at a time, and never buys anything that needs daily monitoring.
He also "sticks with businesses" he understands. For instance, among technology stocks, he likes companies that sell software he knows.
Mr. Carroll disdains advice from people whom he thinks are soliciting his business. He opened his on-line brokerage account two years ago, deciding that, since he did not follow his broker's tips, it was silly to pay full-service fees.
Mr. Carroll is always wary of being nickel-and-dimed. He makes sure the ATMs he uses do not surcharge, and switched his checking to the credit union after discerning "hidden fees for no service" from a thrift. After years without incident at the credit union, he no longer bothers to read its statements, but does scan his Visa bill to confirm the purchases.
Shari Kinsler, 29; Creative director; Coram, N.Y.
Ms. Kinsler, a single mother, has a long-term outlook on her finances, but short-term needs keep her on edge.
"I essentially live check to check," said Ms. Kinsler, who works for a direct marketing company on Long Island. "I'm not in a savings mode right now."
Her monthly obligations include a student loan, a car loan, and preschool tuition for her four-year-old daughter. She also makes mortgage payments for a house she bought last year.
"I would certainly love to upgrade my everyday lifestyle" and "have some consistent and effective retirement planning," Ms. Kinsler said. "And I have to save for college tuition."
To plan for the future, Ms. Kinsler has divided her financial universe into investment accounts and "living accounts." She has a savings and a checking account with a Suffolk County-based credit union, which she joined eight months ago to avoid the fees larger banks had charged for ATM use and not maintaining minimum balances.
Now she has no fees, but fewer branches mean less convenience.
"It was very difficult, as a younger career person and single parent, to keep those balances," she said. "I needed my money to live."
Ms. Kinsler spends 10 hours a month balancing her checkbook, paying bills, and making trips to the bank. Two years ago, she began making investments through a broker at Merrill Lynch, using proceeds from the sale of a house from her first marriage. Her employer offers no investment or pension planning, she said.
Ms. Kinsler's holdings include mutual funds and stocks she chooses in consultation with her broker. She does not follow financial news closely, but does read prospectuses to resarch potential investments.
Ms. Kinsler said she has a "very diversified and balanced portfolio" of aggressive and conservative stocks and funds. Because she is young, she weights her investments slightly toward more risk.
While family and friends offer some financial advice, Ms. Kinsler relies predominantly on her broker, whom she calls a "good mentor." She said, "He treats me the same as clients that have four times the amount invested that I do."
Jeffrey Becker, 38, and Debbie Becker, 34; Sales representative and teacher; Allen, Tex.
The Becker family's budget was recently spared a big strain: their son Jeffrey, 16, decided to attend a community college with a relatively low tuition.
But after two years, Jeffrey plans to transfer to a four-year school, which will cost more. Also in the budget are a mortgage, a car loan, and their younger son, Hayden, 2, whose college years "really aren't that far off when you think about," Mr. Becker said.
A sales representative at LaCerte Tax Software, Mr. Becker and his wife, Debbie, a part-time teacher, live in a suburb of Dallas and earn more than $100,000 a year. They glean personal financial advice from magazines, family members, and friends.
"There is so much fraud in the personal financial industry that we do not use a planner," Mr. Becker said. He allots 14% of his weekly paycheck for savings, which include a 401(k) plan and an individual retirement account. The Beckers have long-term insurance from Prudential Life Insurance, and savings and checking accounts with NationsBank Corp.
Recent transplants from New York, Mr. Becker used to bank with Citibank and use its on-line banking software. He credits Citibank with noticing right away when someone stole his credit card number and used it to charge calls to adult telephone services.
So far, service from NationsBank has also been good, Mr. Becker said, but he is dubious about the merger with BankAmerica. A native Californian, Mr. Becker said BankAmerica "nickels and dimes you on everything. Our biggest concern is that NationsBank does not pick up their ways."
Even so, Mr. Becker likes the idea of a one-stop financial shop. "If you have a only a $500 savings account at a bank and you have a complaint, chances are you won't be heard," Mr. Becker said. "But if you have $50,000 in that bank because your savings, checking, mutual fund, and insurance is there and you have a complaint, the bank is going to listen."