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updated 6/6/2007 10:02:32 AM ET 2007-06-06T14:02:32

Wal-Mart plans to launch a payments card aimed at the estimated 80 million U.S. residents who do not have access to a bank account.

Called the Wal-Mart MoneyCard, the prepaid product would be launched with GE Money, the retailer's financial partner, and branded a Visa card, Wal-Mart officials said. An official announcement of the pilot programme could come as soon as this month.

The venture represents a significant expansion of Wal-Mart's financial services offered to mostly low-income customers, which include low-cost check-cashing and money-transfer services.

It also follows the decision this year to abandon a bid to win a state banking licence in the face of a storm of opposition from the banking industry.

Prepaid gift cards are popular in the U.S., generating a market worth $76 billion last year. But Wal-Mart hopes customers will use the cards as quasi-bank accounts to access a range of financial services.

The card would be modeled on the existing Visa Prepaid card, which lets holders have their weekly wages credited to the card, or to top it up at a range of locations, including supermarkets and convenience stores. The card would have a $3,000 limit, with the balance covered by federal deposit insurance through GE Money Bank.

Reloadable cards, purchased without paperwork, are also seen as potentially attractive to the estimated 12 million undocumented workers in the U.S.

Visa's Prepaid cards are used by more than 30 states, including California, to pay child and unemployment benefits.

Visa estimates 80 million people in the U.S. lack a traditional banking relationship. It believes a worker without a bank account spends more than $300 a year in fees, a sum which can be reduced to $130 using a prepaid card.

Card users can be charged for services such as paying bills and ATM withdrawals.

In addition to low fees, Wal-Mart is expected to offer further incentives to support the expansion of its branded prepaid card.

Its own-brand credit cards, issued by the Discover network, offer holders a 3 cents per gallon discount on fuel at Wal-Mart and Sam's Club petrol stations.

Wal-Mart says it sees its financial services as a way of supporting customers. While it does not break down revenues from financial services, executives say the division is a growing contributor to earnings.

Copyright The Financial Times Ltd. All rights reserved.

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