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BANKS PLAY SCROOGE WHILE AMASSING RECORD PROFITS

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Bankers are enduring a fair amount of acrimony these days for the way they do business.

At a time when commercial banks are earning record profits, exceeding $43 billion last year, they seem to be nickel-and-diming their customers with stiff fees for routine services.You bounce a check, you pay a penalty that more than compensates the bank for its trouble. Simply maintaining a checking account at a bank can be costly if you let the balance dip too low.

Now comes a report from the Consumer Federation of America charging that banks are making "huge profits" on automated teller machines, more than 78 cents on each dollar in ATM fees.

"Only in banking do consumers pay more for self-service," says Chris Lewis, the federation's director of banking policy. "In banking, self-service is regarded as a privilege for which the consumer is required to pay a premium for saving the bank money."

Just how much money banks save by installing ATMs rather than hiring new tellers or opening new branches is a matter of dispute.

For one thing, banks spent more to buy and operate ATM machines last year than they received in ATM fees.

And the easy availability of ATMs encourages people to make more bank transactions than they would have made otherwise. If you're short of cash, you can always get some from the magic machine that's open 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

There were more than 7.7 billion ATM transactions last year, so it's obvious that bank customers like the service and are willing to pay a fee if they use another bank's ATM for convenience.

The way to avoid such charges is to use your own bank's ATM whenever possible. Most banks charge no ATM fee to their own customers, but almost all charge an ATM fee to non-customers, usually around $1.

Another problem for consumers is the slowness of banks to pay higher rates of return on certificates of deposit and other savings accounts. The gap between what banks charge for loans and what they pay in interest to depositors is much too wide.

One reason banks are so profitable is that they're charging double-digit rates on credit card balances and personal loans and 8 percent or more on car loans and home loans, while paying bargain-basement rates to depositors with money market accounts.

Banks are in business to make money, so it's no surprise they pay as little as possible to attract deposits. But bank customers have some options of their own. They can complain about low rates. They can move their money. Banks do compete with each other, and rates vary from one bank to the next.

Too much of the debate over banking has been centered on efforts by Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan to head off future inflation by raising short-term interest rates to cool off the economy.

Democrats on the Senate Finance Committee accuse Green-span of favoring Wall Street over Main Street. But they know, or should know, that Greenspan will do what he thinks is right, no matter what. That's why we have an independent Federal Reserve Board.

Much more can be accomplished by average citizens urging banks to lower their interest rates on consumer loans while raising the rates on savings. You'd be surprised what friendly persuasion can do.