Midsize Companies Shop for Banks

Companies are evolving into choosier shoppers when it comes to banking providers. There has been a marked uptick in the number of small and midsize companies that are issuing requests for proposals to select a new bank, according to a quarterly survey by consultancy Greenwich Associates, and the biggest thing motivating companies seems to be the level of fees they're paying.

According to Greenwich, 20% of midsize companies issued RFPs in the first half of this year, up from the 11% that did so in the second half of 2009. More than 15% of small companies issued RFPs, up from 7% in the second half of last year. Greenwich says the pace of RFP issuance is "truly striking" given that usually about 10% of small and midsize companies switch banks in a given year.

"We had traditionally seen a real hesitation to move," says Chris McDonnell, a vice president and consultant at Greenwich. "To see this increasing number of requests for proposals and that type of openness to switching is bad news for the lower performers in the banking space."

The Greenwich data show that more than half of the small and midsize companies cite bank fees as one of their top three reasons for issuing an RFP.

Don Ogilvie, independent chairman of the Deloitte Center for Financial Services, and former CEO of the American Bankers Association, says it's not surprising companies are doing what they can to contain what they pay their banks amid an economic slowdown. "Everybody's trying to reduce expenses," Ogilvie says. "They're looking at every expense item."

When it comes to cash management services, fees seem to be fairly tame. The Phoenix-Hecht Blue Book of Bank Prices, which is based on actual account statements, shows prices increased just 2.2% in 2010, down from the 3.6% increase in 2009.

But McDonnell says companies have become more aware of the cost of cash management services amid the downturn. As the economic slowdown ate into their bank balances, he says, it also ate away at the earnings credit rates that previously covered a portion of companies' cash management costs.

"When the accounts were fuller, earnings credits were being put against the treasury services, so companies did not have to pay that much for these products and services," McDonnell says. "As the cash levels have come down, companies have to write a check for that, so to speak. That's been a difficult adjustment for some of these folks."

David Bochnovic, executive vice president at Phoenix-Hecht, cites "an increase in the frequency of discounting, which appears to reflect the overall weakness of the economic recovery as banks might feel the need to mitigate price increases to their stronger customers."

Deloitte's Ogilvie says companies are well-advised to keep an eye on bank fees because a number of recent pieces of legislation will affect banks' revenue streams, which will likely lead to them to hike their prices.

"Because of many of the rules and regulations, banks' costs will increase quite dramatically in the future," he says. "And in some cases, they either are or will be prohibited from charging certain fees that they have charged in the past. When that happens, banks have to make that up somewhere else, they tend to increase fees in other areas."

Overall, the Greenwich survey results line up with other data suggesting some sag in the economic recovery. The outlook on the economy is a bit bleaker, especially among midsize companies, just 38% of which expect the economy to improve over the remaining six months of this year, down from 48% who were expecting improvement over the next six months as of the first quarter.

Credit availability is another concern, with 53% of small businesses and 41% of midsize companies saying they're finding it harder to borrow from their banks than they did a year ago.

For a piece from last year about the outlook for bank fees, see Beware of Fee Hikes.


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