Coming soon to a bank near you: the Great Summer Switch.
In a matter of weeks, three longtime bank brand names in the bay area will go away for good, with new signage, stationary and ATMs reflecting the name of the big bank that bought their branches. Out with Wachovia, Mercantile and BankAtlantic; in with Wells Fargo, TD Bank and PNC.
So, will the scramble for brand recognition result in better deals for bank customers?
Don't count on it.
Fees may in fact be higher, lending terms likely won't be any less stringent and — for the patient savers out there — it will take more than a handful of new banks to push up anemic CD rates.
"Around the time they change the signs is also about the time they blend two pricing platforms into one," said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com.
"That's not always a change for the worse" in terms of higher fees, McBride said.
But some other analysts who follow the state are predicting just that scenario.
"What this means for Florida consumers is higher prices," said longtime bank analyst Richard X. Bove of Rochdale Securities. "There will be higher costs for checking and higher costs for debit cards. You're going to see higher costs on credit cards. You'll see higher costs on how overdrafts are handled."
Part of that is driven by the policies of big banks like Chase and Wells Fargo, he said, and part is driven by regulatory changes out of Washington.
On the saving side, ironically, the displaced weaker banks may have been better for customers seeking the highest returns. That's because weaker banks are more likely to offer higher CD rates and other attractive terms to draw in business, said Ken Thomas, a Miami-based banking consultant and economist.
"Overall it's better to have stronger banks in the community … but stronger banks don't pay higher (CD) rates," Thomas said. "The stronger banks don't have to pay higher rates."
McBride said healthier large banks will eventually improve credit availability and provide access to a broader range of technology. "But to the guy who sees his free checking account go away or sees less competitive rates when his CD comes up for renewal, that doesn't matter much," he said.
McBride's advice: Shop around.
"Have your eyes open. If you're part of the bank being acquired, the terms are going to change. You want to have your antenna up for that," he said. "See if there's a better deal to be had elsewhere. Look at credit unions, smaller community banks and online banks, particularly if you're intent on free checking."
To be sure, customers will have plenty of options during their shopping expedition.
Among changes in the works in June alone:
• PNC has begun bagging outdoor signs at 19 BankAtlantic branches it bought in the Tampa Bay area and will unveil them as PNC branches the weekend of June 4. The shrunken BankAtlantic is still in operation elsewhere, focusing on South Florida.
• TD Bank will switch over branches of the former Mercantile Bank the weekend of June 17.
• The granddaddy of the trio, Wells Fargo, is finally changing over the vast Wachovia branch network in Florida that it bought almost three years ago. Look for the bay area switch the weekend of June 11.
Meanwhile: JPMorgan Chase plans to open a dozen branches in west-central Florida this year in the wake of buying the Washington Mutual franchise, while Hancock Holding Co. is completing its acquisition of the parent of Whitney Bank, which has 18 branches in the bay area.
Together, the banks entering and expanding in the market control more than a quarter of Florida's deposits.
There hasn't been this much of a shakeup of the state's financial landscape since a pair of upstart Charlotte, N.C., banks called NationsBank (now Bank of America) and First Union (which became Wachovia) began snapping up Florida community banks two decades ago — a process that transformed Florida into the country's biggest banking colony controlled by out-of-state banks .
The Carolina invasion triggered a flurry of new community bank startups, many of which where subsequently swallowed by larger banks.
Bove compares the history of Florida banking to an accordion. The number of banks expand dramatically, then there's tremendous consolidation, then expansion and another contraction.
The latest consolidation only exacerbates concern that financial decisions affecting Floridians are made by out-of-state players. Roughly 75 percent of Florida's deposits are now controlled by banks not based in Florida. Non-Florida banks may devote some funds to community investment, but some worry that it's not the same as an institution's devotion to its hometown and home state.
Analyst Ken Thomas gives the example of a major corporation from China seeking advice from Wells Fargo on where to open a U.S. facility. Would Wells Fargo be more likely to steer them to Tampa Bay or San Francisco, Wells Fargo's headquarters?
"People take care of their home first," Thomas said.
Florida's newer banks say the transformation is a good thing. They're pledging more choices, more products and improved service.
Customer service is the name of the game at TD Bank, which promises customers calling its help line will be connected with a real person within a few seconds 98 percent of the time. Any day, any time.
Wells Fargo, meanwhile, trumps its competitors when it comes to convenience. With nearly 700 branches and 943 ATMs statewide, it has a bigger footprint than any other bank, along with a huge range of products and services to choose from across more than 80 lines of business, bank spokeswoman Kathy Harrison said.
At PNC Bank, Florida retail banking market manager Kevin Sloan touts service and technology offerings as a plus. He said his institution can customize its product offerings depending on each customer's needs to find the best fit. "It's about more choices and lower fees," he said.
One example of heightened technology is PNC's "virtual wallet," an integrated checking account product that lets customers manage accounts electronically. There's a mobile component, as well, that lets customers monitor their bills, pay through a PNC credit card and even receive an automatic text message if their balance falls below a certain level.
PNC is dropping BankAtlantic's model of keeping some branches open seven days a week. But Sloan said that was more of a marketing pitch than a service customers were seeking. With PNC offering mobile banking, apps on smart phones and more than 360 ATMs statewide, daily branch access is not as critical, he said.
One group that could benefit from the heightened competition are healthy small businesses.
Small and mid-sized Florida companies will have a more direct pipeline to some of the biggest financial institutions in the country, such as Chase.
"A lot of markets around the country can't say that," Thomas pointed out. "One of the most concentrated markets in the country is in Pittsburgh, where one bank (PNC) literally owns Pittsburgh. That's great for PNC but not for the customers."
The analysts also concurred that the big banks tend to be very good at handling cash management for small businesses.
Little wonder as small-business banking is what many banks covet most — the "holy grail" of banking, as McBride puts it, because bankers get not only a small business' accounts but also the personal accounts of its owners. Banks have long preached about relationship banking, selling multiple product lines to each customer.
In the end, it's up to each customer to assess their own "financial personality," McBride said. Do you like being a free agent seeking the lowest fees? Or do you place higher value on the convenience of having everything under one roof in a nearby branch where you can go freely and talk to someone face to face. How much do you care about using the latest technology? Or tapping into a free ATM network that extends far beyond Florida's border?
For every customer, the answers are different.