It's in vogue to talk about the "commoditization" of financial services. In an age when the competitive advantage of bringing new products and services to market wanes as competitors quickly replicate the offerings, the incentive to differentiate products declines steadily.

Increasingly, the argument goes, financial service firms must assume the role of commodity distributors, with price and strong customer relationships becoming all-important. It's no accident that Web organizations such as America Online have been the big winners-their success is based largely on presenting consumers with an array of products and helping them make a purchasing decision. As everyone now knows, such portals are beating at the financial industry's gate.

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