There's nothing like pressure to jump-start creativity. And if you don't believe that, just ask the people at Cincinnati's $6.5 billion Provident Bank. Under pressure from its two bigger competitors, Fifth Third Bank and Star Bank, Provident came up with an innovative, patent-pending product that could goose its net income well beyond any mere loan program. Called MeritValu, it's a relationship card that allows merchants giving cardholders a rebate of about 2.5 percent on sales, access-for a fee-to Provident's data mining capabilities and consulting and marketing services.

Under the program, the bank holds those accumulated rebates, which the cardholder can cash in at any time. When the merchant swipes the MeritValu card, the customer sees both the rebate and the accumulated balance in the Merit Money account. This account is, in effect, an interest-free loan from the merchant to the bank until the customer spends the balance.

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