10 States Where Small Banks Thrive, Or A Walmart Conspiracy?

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- "Big banks are an oligopoly and what that map is showing is that they're exerting their pricing power."

You might expect a quote like that from Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D., Mass.) or Joseph Stiglitz, the liberal-leaning Nobel laureate. Afterall, Warren and Stiglitz are two of the most prominent big bank critics to emerge from the 2008 financial crisis.

Instead, it came from Dick Bove, analyst at Rafferty Capital Markets and author of Guardians of Prosperity: Why America Needs Big Banks.

Bove argues that we need giant banks like Citigroup (C), Wells Fargo (WFC), JPMorgan Chase  (JPM) and Bank of America  (BAC) to compete globally and to service large corporations and governments. Breaking up those institutions, he argues, will seriously undermine U.S. competitiveness.

Still, the analyst concedes giant banks aren't the best thing for consumers.

What is most striking about the map (shown on the next page and originally from a Web site called GOBankingRates.com) is the strong concentration of inexpensive banking services in the center of the country along the Mississippi River.

"That's the only region of the country that has not seen the massive consolidation of banking that you've got on the East and West coasts," Bove says. "Therefore you've got banks like USBancorp (USB), Fifth Third (FITB), Comerica  (CMA) and Keycorp  (KEY) that have the ability to go head to head against each other and that keeps prices down."

Banking is cheapest of all in Arkansas, and most expensive in Arizona, according to the study, which ranks the 50 states and Washington D.C.

"Arkansas is served by many small community banks or mid-size banks, with very few national banks having a large presence," says Jason Kincy, marketing director at Arvest Bank, in a quote accompanying the study.

The quote is more than a little bit ironic. Arvest is the largest bank in Arkansas, though with some $14 billion in assets it is a flea compared to the big four, which are all in the $1.5 trillion to $3 trillion range.

The irony, however, comes from the fact that Arvest is owned and run by the Walton family, of Walmart (WMT) fame. Unlike the big banks, Walmart thrives by keeping prices low. The retailing giant does not own Arvest and it gave up on its own quest to get a bank charter in 2007 after legislators fought the move. Still, Walmart has gotten around the rejection quite nicely, and offers plenty of financial services such as check cashing and money transfers that probably aren't the most cost-effective options for its cash-strapped customers. So a more skeptical reading of the map is that the good people of Arkansas, Missouri and Kansas are free from Wells Fargo and Bank of America only because they are prisoners to Walmart.

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