BANKTHINK

Big Banks Should Offer Low-Cost Bank Accounts

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The five biggest banks – Wells Fargo, Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Citibank and US Bank – have raised fees on their checking accounts so that customers who do not hold a combined minimum balance with the banks (sometimes as high as $1,500 a month) or have direct deposit are paying anywhere from $84 to $144 a year for basic services.

The customers hardest hit by these new service fees are also those most likely to incur overdraft and insufficient funds fees since they lack the financial cushion to soften the blow of accounting errors that even the most careful of money managers can make.  Additionally, like most people, they don't realize their bank's "available balance" may not reflect recent payments made via signature debit card, ACH authorization, bank generated bill pay programs or handwritten checks. Their bank may add to their confusion – and the fees they would otherwise pay - by reordering transactions from high to low.

The blame for this sorry state of consumer banking should not be placed on the Durbin amendment or overdraft reform. Standard & Poor's estimates the Durbin Amendment's immediate financial impact for the entire banking industry is equal to only 1.5% of U.S. banks' total 2011 revenue. There is no overwhelming need to pass such marginal revenue losses onto the consumer: Banks pulled in over $61.6 billion in profits in the first six months after the interchange limits took effect, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp .  

Meanwhile, the average American household has significantly less wealth than they had pre-crisis. Two of every five Americans are now living paycheck to paycheck, according to a recent survey.  Most do not feel they can weather an ordinary financial shock, such as an unanticipated major car repair.

As such, every household should have access to a low cost, full service bank account that allows them to protect their assets and maintain a financial identity.  They should have reliable information about the money they have available to spend and how their expenditures will affect their bottom line. These simple values have become more expensive and harder to secure than ever.

The California Reinvestment Coalition has designed its SafeMoney account as a model for what large banks and others should provide to consumers. This account is designed to help the average consumer make necessary payments, manage cash flow and avoid ancillary fees all for a flat fee of around $3 a month. It includes most of the major payment platforms the FDIC found are commonly used by "underbanked" households, including a debit card, online and phone-based bill payment, money orders and remittance services. The SafeMoney account does not include checks so customers will save on bounced check fees and banks can save on processing costs.  The account would also exclude overdraft services and its related fees, at point of sale and at the ATM. If a customer does not have the money for a purchase, then that purchase would be blocked. Customers that need additional funds should be referred to the appropriate credit products.

Customers should also have the security of knowing what transactions are reflected in their account balance information. While banks may contend with multiple back-end payments processing rules and networks, they should insulate their customers from the problems this can have on their money management. All transactions, including authorized, but unprocessed debit purchases and planned bill payments, remittances and ACH transactions should be clearly noted and subtracted from the available balance that is reported to customers via text, online, mobile app and phone inquiries. Customers should also be provided with estimates of when the funds intended for planned payments will actually be withdrawn from their account. 

Some banks have offered their customer prepaid cards, which are exempt from the Durbin limits on interchange fees. This is a problem because even bank-sponsored prepaid cards are not bank account replacements. Bank accounts, not prepaid cards, are universally recognized assets. They provide a long-term financial identity as important to accessing quality financial opportunities as a person's medical history is to receiving quality health care. Bank accounts and related debit cards are heavily regulated and protected by laws that guarantee federal deposit insurance, rights to price and fee disclosures, guarantees of availability of funds after deposit, and the right to have electronic transactions errors swiftly corrected. Prepaid cards are exempt from all of these crucial consumer protections.

The Big Five banks all offer deals to their wealthier customers to incentivize multiple and long-term relationships. They also have the power to use technology to inform and empower customers with critical information. These banks should use their power to invest in the profitability of the average household by offering an account based on our SafeMoney model.

Andrea Luquetta is a policy advocate with the California Reinvestment Coalition.

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