Monday, September 22, 2014
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Bank of America abandons plan for $5 debit fee

The bank's move was a lightning rod, others in the industry said. But it doesn't mean the bank won't try to regain revenue lost to new federal rules.

Bank of America abandons plan for $5 debit fee

Bank of America says it's backing down on its controversial plan to impose a $5-a-month fee for debit-card use "in response to customer feedback and the changing competitive marketplace":

"We have listened to our customers very closely over the last few weeks and recognize their concern with our proposed debit usage fee," said David Darnell, co-chief operating officer. "Our customers' voices are most important to us. As a result, we are not currently charging the fee and will not be moving forward with any additional plans to do so."

The decision was welcomed by consumer advocacy groups, but there's no sign that the most outspoken groups plan to back down from their broader aim of urging customers to switch banks to voice objections not just to the new fee but to the broader damage caused by "too big to fail" banks in the financial crisis and recession.

A Facebook campaign is touting this Saturday, Nov. 5, as Bank Transfer Day.  The Progressive Change Campaign Committee is calling Saturday "Move Your Money Day," and plans to launch an online tool - the group is calling it, biblically, "Banxodus" - to help people "find good-guy banks in their community." 

Some advocates were happy to count Bank of America's about-face, which comes on the heels of similar reversals by other big banks, as a victory.

“Consumers have the power to make the big banks back down from unfair practices if they raise their voices and vote with their feet and their dollars,” Norma Garcia, manager of Consumers Union's financial services program, said in a statement Tuesday. “In the end, Bank of America understood that it risked losing too many valuable customers by charging an unfair debit card fee.”

As I reported yesterday regarding JP Morgan Chase's decision to end its test of a similar $3-a-month debit fee, a decision to drop one high-profile fee doesn't mean that a fee-reliant bank - that is, every large U.S. bank - will simply forgo the revenue.

The new caps on debit transaction fees imposed by last year's Dodd-Frank financial reform are expected to cost the nation's largest banks an estimated $6 billion to $8 billion a year in revenue, because merchants are now paying an average of 24 cents per transaction versus 44 cents before the rule went into effect a month ago. Bank of America said the new rule could cost it as much as $2 billion a year.

What else can banks do to recapture revenues they expect to lose? Chase is a case in point: It formerly offered an entry-level checking account with a $6 monthly fee, albeit one that could be waived with a large enough minimum balance or at least five of those lucrative debit-card transactions a month. Now a similar checking account carries a $12 monthly fee for those who don't receive at least $500 in direct deposits, maintain a $1,500 minimum balance, or keep at least $5,000 in a combination of deposit and investment balances.

Those either-or deals always net some fraction of customers who miss the target and pay the monthly fee. So some Chase customers will now be paying $12 instead of $6 a month for basic banking services.

So who needs the lightning rod of a debit-card fee, other than to make the point - which the banks have been making all along - that the Durbin Amendment hurts consumers, not banks?

It will - if consumers simply accept higher fees. It won't if they continue to push back - as organizations such as Consumers Union are encouraging:

Bank of America’s announcement in September that it planned to charge most of its customers a monthly debit card fee beginning in 2012 sparked a huge public outcry. The public protest added significant momentum to a growing movement among consumers to transfer their accounts from big banks to credit unions and smaller community banks.

Over the past week, JP Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, SunTrust Bank, and Regions Financial Corp. have all backed away from plans to charge monthly fees for debit card purchases. Bank of America was the only major bank left with plans to charge a debit card fee until it caved to public pressure today.

“The public backlash over debit card fees should serve as a big wake up call to banks that they can’t arrogantly take their customers for granted,” said Pamela Banks, senior policy counsel for Consumers Union. “While banks may come back with other fees in the future, they’ll be gauging public reaction carefully. Consumers should be on the lookout for new fees and remember that if they’re not happy with how they are being treated, they should shop around for a bank or credit union that can offer them a better deal.”

Consumers Union has developed a set of tips to help guide consumers interested in switching their accounts to a new financial institution. The tips along with a “How-To Change Banks” video is available at www.DefendYourDollars.org.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
About this blog

Jeff Gelles, who writes the Inquirer's weekly Consumer 14.0 and Tech Life columns, takes a broad look at the marketplace of goods, services, and ideas.

Reach Jeff at jgelles@phillynews.com.

Jeff Gelles Inquirer Business Columnist
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