WASHINGTON - Large banks and thrifts charged "significantly higher" fees than smaller institutions for many services last year, according to a Federal Reserve Board report issued Wednesday.
For example, large, or multistate, organizations penalized customers an average of $5.50 more for stop-payment orders and about $4 more for overdrafts than small, or single-state, banks, the report said.
Large banks charged noncustomers a "statistically significant" 43 cents more for withdrawals from automated teller machines and 14 cents more for ATM surcharges - fees imposed on a bank's own customers for using its ATMs, the report said.
Small banks had "significantly higher" fees in only one category of nine for which enough data were available: They charged $1.60 more for returned deposit items - the penalty for customers who deposit bad checks written by others.
Representatives of big banks said they offer more for a customer's money.
"That's the cost of doing business," said Joe Belew, the president of the Consumer Bankers Association. "In return the customer gets more convenience and more branches," he said, noting that banking with a multistate institution makes it easier to access cash while traveling.
Stephen Brobeck, the executive director of the Consumer Federation of America, agreed with Mr. Belew to an extent but said that consolidation and branch closures have granted considerable control to a handful of banks. That drives up the fees that consumers pay, he said, because their choices are limited.
"People primarily choose an institution based on its proximity to their residence," Mr. Brobeck said. "More and more, there's only one or two big institutions that are convenient, especially in modest-income areas. The banks would call that 'opportunity cost,' but it happens because the big banks can exercise more market power."
The Fed survey of about 500 banks and thrifts could be the last in a series required by Congress on the changes in the cost and availability of bank services. Authority for the report, published since 1989, lapsed last year and was not reinstated until late December. It was renewed for only one year, however, and Congress would have to act again for it to continue.
In April the House passed a bill that would require the report in its current form for 2001 and then require the Fed to conduct an expanded survey from 2002 on that would include credit unions. The Senate has yet to act on the bill.
Despite the David-versus-Goliath comparisons, Mr. Belew said that the report has a lot of good news for consumers.
For example, the number of banks offering totally free checking nearly doubled, to 26.6% of those surveyed. And 97% of banks offer no-fee, non-interest checking accounts if customers maintain an average balance of just under $500. "Banks are doing a great job" of making basic accounts available at very low cost, Mr. Belew said.
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