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BANK MERGER MANIA : Consumer Groups Fault Chase-Chemical Deal : Reaction: They warn of higher fees, layoffs and greater inconvenience as banks get bigger.

From Associated Press

Combining Chase Manhattan Corp. and Chemical Banking Corp. could boost bank fees and inconvenience consumers as the mammoth banks close branches and lay off thousands of workers, consumer groups warned Monday.

Such groups were decidedly less enthusiastic about the mega-merger than investors, who sharply bid up the stock of both partners on the expectation that the deal will cut $1.5 billion in costs.

“There’s no evidence that mergers like this one have benefited consumers in any way. Often there’s less competition, higher fees and loan rates and increased inconvenience,” said Stephen Brobeck, executive director of Consumers Federation of America, a Washington-based consumer group.

The groups say they worry that the stunning $11-billion merger of Chemical and Chase is likely to spur other big combinations. Fewer bank branches and the creation of a new biggest banking company, they say, will erode competition and give players more leeway to jack up fees on everything from checking accounts to home mortgage loans.

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Chase Chairman and Chief Executive Walter Shipley said Monday that the merger’s impact on fees is “hard to predict.” But he said lower premiums on federally insured bank deposits will be passed on in the form of lower fees for consumer deposits and that “certain products” will have competitive pricing.

“Banking is very competitive and we think our prices will be right where they should be,” Shipley said at a news conference announcing the merger.

The Chemical-Chase deal, expected to close by March, 1996, would probably result in 12,000 job cuts from a combined staff of 75,000 in 39 states and 51 countries. The two banks are also expected to close overlapping branches, meaning some customers will see their accounts moved to another location.

Consumer groups say history shows that larger banks means less competition and higher fees.

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A study of nearly 300 banks found that they increased checking and savings accounts fees at nearly twice the rate of inflation over the last two years and that the highest fees were charged by the biggest banks. The survey was conducted by the United States Public Interest Group and the Center for Study of Responsive Law, two Washington-based consumer groups.

“The big concern is that whenever we see banks with a huge presence in a market merging, we see fees increased and fees for things that used to be free,” said Janice Shields, a research analyst at the Center for Study of Responsive Law who co-authored the study.

Still, some banking industry experts said the impact on consumers is far from clear-cut. The proposal could accelerate a trend toward increased convenience, hastening the day when most Americans will write checks, apply for loans and conduct other financial business without talking to a bank employee.

There are still plenty of banks in New York’s highly competitive market. Around the nation, there are 11,000 commercial and savings banks, 58,000 bank branches, 12,600 credit unions and 100,000 automated teller machines.

As big banks close branches, community banks can fill the gap by providing consumers with a personal touch, says the Independent Bankers Assn. of America, which represents community banks.

“When you have a community bank based in the community, you walk in to get a car loan, usually you can get a decision right there,” said Rob Rowe, the group’s regulatory counsel. “If you go into a big bank, they may or may not have the authority to do anything about a loan.”

The price for quicker transactions at some banks, though, may be the elimination of nearly half a million bank jobs over the next five years, according to a study by Deloitte & Touche.

“It’s a fabulous deal for the banking industry. It’s an unfortunate deal for the people who are going to be losing their jobs,” said Brendan Burnett-Stohner, principal at Sullivan & Co., a New York-based recruiting firm specializing in financial services.

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