apart from their big-bank competitors. But based on the results of several new studies, small banks might consider making some marketing hay out of another big advantage: lower fees. Earlier this year, the Federal Reserve released a study that explores a variety of bank fees at institutions of all sizes. Among the study's findings: The average annual fees on simple passbook savings accounts at large banks were $34.32, almost double the $18 charged by small banks. (Large banks were defined as having assets of $1 billion or more; small banks had less than $100 million in assets.) The Fed also found that that average stop-payment fees were $20.06 at large banks, 57% greater than at small banks. The average charge for bounced checks was $22.10 at large banks, 43% greater than at small banks. Fees at automated teller machine fees were also higher at larger banks. For example, ATM fees for customer withdrawals at another bank's ATM averaged $1.29 at large banks, 18% higher than at small banks. More recently, a separate study of consumer banking fees conducted by U.S. PIRG, a nationwide public interest group, found similar disparities between what large and small banks charged. PIRG's conclusion: "The best deal, for consumers who qualify for membership, is at member-owned credit unions. Others can find lower fees at small, locally owned community banks.'' The Independent Community Bankers of America has publicized both studies. But Bob Barsness, president of Minnesota's Prior Lake State Bank and president of the ICBA, points out that most community banks have not done enough to promote their lower fees as a competitive advantage. "There has never been a concerted effort on the part of the industry to deal with this issue,'' he says. Of his own bank's efforts, he says: "We have not done as much as we should have. Maybe we've been too nice." - John Kimelman

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