Wal-Mart Type Banks Put on Hold

By | July 30, 2006

Federal bank regulators have halted for six months any new approvals of the sort of industrial banks that Wal-Mart, Home Depot and 12 other companies are seeking to own.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. imposed the moratorium on approving the industrial loan corporations, or ILCs. Nearly 100 members of Congress from both parties recently asked the FDIC to give lawmakers a chance to consider legislation that would block commercial companies from owning the corporations.

The FDIC directors voted informally, without convening a meeting, over the course of this week. It was the first major action taken by the agency under its new chairman, Sheila Bair. The FDIC will not make any final decisions on applications for the banks or for changes in control of existing banks and will not accept new applications for six months, the agency said Friday in a news release.

“Recently, the growth of the ILC industry, the trend toward commercial company ownership of ILCs and the nature of some ILC business models have raised questions about the risks of ILCs to the deposit insurance fund, and whether their commercial relationships pose any safety and soundness risks,” the FDIC said.

The moratorium, which extends until next Jan. 31, will give the regulators time to decide whether changes in law or regulation are needed, the agency said.

The application of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, to establish an ILC based in Utah has spurred opposition from banks, unions, lawmakers, and consumer and community organizations. In April, groups representing those interests argued against granting Wal-Mart’s request at two public hearings, the first ever held by the FDIC on such an application.

“We respect the FDIC’s decision to consider these matters carefully,” company spokeswoman Tara Raddohl said Friday of the move to impose a moratorium. “The FDIC’s action does not change our commitment to move forward with our application. We will continue to work constructively with the FDIC.”

Wal-Mart insists it has no plans to compete with community banks and has pledged to the FDIC to stay out of branch banking and consumer lending. Rather, its newly chartered bank would be used to handle the 140 million credit card, debit card and electronic check payments it processes each year, the company says.

There are now 61 ILCs with a total of about $141 billion in assets and $98 billion in deposits. Thirty-three are based in Utah, one of only seven states that grant charters for such banks. The banks are allowed to issue credit cards, take deposits and make loans; they cannot offer standard checking accounts if their assets exceed $100 million.

In addition to Wal-Mart and The Home Depot Inc., companies awaiting FDIC approval to establish ILCs or acquire existing ones include Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway Inc., The Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association, automakers Ford Motor Co. and DaimlerChrysler AG, and information services provider Ceridian Corp.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., a principal sponsor of legislation to block nonfinancial companies from owning the banks, said Bair “has taken the right step in giving Congress the ability to consider the implications of the increasing efforts to use ILC charters to avoid the long-standing separation of banking and commerce.”

A Federal Reserve official recently raised concerns at a congressional hearing about nonfinancial companies establishing banks, because, he said, the owners of federally insured ILCs are able to avoid the regulatory requirements that apply to owners of other types of insured banks overseen by the central bank.

Fed Chairman Ben Bernanke has urged Congress to bring ILCs under the central bank’s supervision.

Because the ILCs are federally insured, deposits in individual accounts are guaranteed up to $100,000 if any of them fail. The FDIC insurance fund, standing at some $49.2 billion currently, is financed by premiums paid by banks.

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