Thursday, January 18, 2018
Business

Column: Customers are ignored as companies stash cash

JPMorgan Chase patted itself on the back this year after announcing plans to close hundreds of branches and increasingly shift customer transactions to ATMs and online banking.

A deposit involving a human teller, the bank noted, costs it about 65 cents, whereas an ATM deposit costs just 8 cents and using a smartphone app lowers the transaction cost to a mere 3 cents. Chase figures these moves will save the bank about $1.4 billion.

And how much of those savings can customers expect to see?

"Probably none," said Alfred E. Osborne Jr., a UCLA economist and senior associate dean of the school's Anderson School of Management. "Prices only fall when there's reasonable competition or reasonable alternatives, and you don't see that in many industries."

Banking isn't unique on this score. U.S. airlines are raking in record profits thanks to near-full planes and cheap fuel. Carriers pocketed $25.6 billion last year, up 241 percent from the year before, according to the Department of Transportation. The average domestic airfare, meanwhile, slipped just 8.3 percent to $363 last year from 2014.

According to Moody's Investor Service, U.S. companies hoarded almost $1.7 trillion in cash last year — more than twice what they had stashed before the Great Recession. Nearly three-quarters of that money was kept overseas for tax-avoidance purposes.

Consumer spending accounts for about two-thirds of U.S. economic activity. Without us, business gets bupkes. So it's fair to wonder: Where's our piece of the action?

"Absolutely, consumers are due for their share," said Carmen Balber, executive director of Consumer Watchdog, an advocacy group. "All that profit comes from our pocketbooks."

She pointed a finger at tech giant Apple, which was dubbed the "cash king" by Moody's for sitting on $216 billion last year — almost all of it squirreled away overseas.

"Has the price of an Apple product come down in the last 10 years?" Balber said. "Not a dime."

Apple CEO Tim Cook has said he won't be bringing any of that money back to the United States until the country makes the tax system friendlier — for Apple, that is.

I asked Chase about the bank steering customers to cheaper-to-use automated devices. Will the hundreds of millions of dollars saved result in, say, lower overdraft fees?

Suzanne Alexander, a Chase spokeswoman, had an easy answer to that: No.

"We'll be reinvesting the money," she said. "New technology. New cybersecurity."

And more money for shareholders. In May, Chase raised its dividend by 9 percent.

As for customers? Nada.

What can you do? I'd suggest you call the companies you favor with your hard-earned pay and ask why their profits keep going up but their prices never come down.

But we know what the response to that would be, don't we?

"We are experiencing unusually heavy call volume. Please try your call later."

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