Saturday, October 15, 2011

Bad banks and (you guessed it) free TV

I was listening to NPR a few days ago and I heard a financial reporter say that other banks would probably follow BoA's lead and start charging a fee for debit cards because "that's how markets work." That is, in fact, pretty much the exact opposite of how markets are supposed to work.

Even with the new regulation, merchants' fees are still many times what the transactions cost the banks. When markets are doing their job, businesses shouldn't be able to use a competitor's price increase as cover to raise their own. Competition is supposed to prevent this kind of de facto price fixing. In a well-functioning market, BoA's move should provide an ideal opportunity for a smaller bank to come in and grab a bigger slice of what is still a multibillion dollar market.

Of course, we don't have anything like a well-functioning market in banking. The considerable inconvenience of changing banks (particularly in an age of direct deposit) means that price increases and cuts in service will only cause minimal loss in market share. Poor transparency means that even if you get fed up enough to change banks, you probably won't be able to get the information you need to make an informed choice (at least not in a form that even a financial advisor can understand). Finally, and most importantly, the market is dominated by a handful of huge players, implicitly backed by the federal government thanks to their too-big-to-fail status.

Which brings me to my main point, and yes, the connection to free TV. We seem, as a society, to have become indifferent, if not openly hostile, to the idea of competition. I'm not talking about intrusive government anti-trust policies (those we can debate at another time); I'm talking about intrusive government policies that actively discourage competition. Implicitly guaranteeing the biggest banks, mangling patent and copyright laws to favor major established players, and, in the case of over-the-air television, proposing to shut down the only part of the television industry that's diversified and not dominated by large corporations (you could look at this as roughly analogous to proposing that we shut down credit unions).

The go-to guy on this story is, of course, Joe Nocera, but both Salmon and Baseline Scenario are also doing some great work here.

1 comment:

  1. The real issue is whether the fundamentals of retail banking have changed the cost structure of the business. If the price of steel goes up, the cost of cars will rise. The question is whether or not this is an analogous situation, or whether the banks are raising prices in a non-competitive area to subsidize losses in other business lines (or merely to increase compensation levels for executives).