Competition Works

(cc photo by robertstinnett)

(cc photo by robertstinnett)

The idea of monopoly is generally associated with the idea of enormous firms. And the idea of Wal-Mart is generally associated with crushing cute mom and pop firms. But oftentimes smallish incumbent firms are a kind of local monopoly, extracting rents out of a geographically delimited customer base. And Wal-Mart can be part of the solution:

Wal-Mart already has “MoneyCenters” in 1,000 of its U.S. stores, and the company said yesterday it plans to to add 400 more by the end of the year. The centers offer services like check cashing and bill pay that are often considered part of the broader “fringe banking” system. […] Lots of those people go to local check-cashing outfits that often charge high fees. So Wal-Mart, which charges $3 to $6 cash a check, can be a good alternative, said Alejandra Lopez-Fernandini, who works for a New America Foundation program that aims to help low- and middle-income people build wealth.

If you’re cashing, for example, a $1,000 biweekly paycheck then $6 is almost one third the price MoneyGram is asking. Nothing too earth-shattering about this, but it underscores the point that a lot of the time the best solution to abusive business practices is to find ways to get competing firms into the business.

Incidentally, the Wall Street Journal notes that Wal-Mart once tried and failed to get a full bank charter which would have allowed it to accept deposits and make loans. If they had the license, how many of the 17 million Americans who currently lack a bank account would have one today? And how much damage would it have done to the business models of incumbent depositary institutions?

Here’s National Economic Council Deputy Director Jason Furman with some earlier Wal-Mart apologia from CAP.