Retail banking these days brings to mind the adage about academic politics, where "the competition is so vicious because the stakes are so small."

Low interest rates, a soft economic recovery and new regulations are continuing to shrink the stakes — or at least the current profit and revenue growth — in retail banking. Now financial companies of all sizes are struggling to increase the returns that they can eke out of their remaining operations, while trying to elbow their competitors out of the same turf.

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