Many bankers have told me recently they are not going to devote energy to improving their overdraft programs because overdraft is eventually going away. That could not be further from the truth.
While we are invested in the future of overdraft since our business provides overdraft management solutions, we also provide other fee income strategies and continue to see overdraft as the main driver of fee income.
Some bankers say, even though overdraft is the largest source of fee income on checking accounts, it's not worth investing in improving their overdraft programs because the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau could institute a cap on the number of overdraft fees a financial institution can charge or could ban overdraft programs altogether. This is just not going to happen.
First, instituting a cap on the fees banks may charge or their ability to offer overdraft services in general should require legislative action. If the CFPB were to take such an action without underlying legislation, you can be assured that there will be litigation over its power to do so. Even after Rep. Carolyn Maloney, D-N.Y., submitted a bill in 2009 and again in 2012 to institute a cap of six overdraft fees per year, the House refused to act on this issue, showing a lack of legislative appetite to undercut banks' primary fee income source on checking accounts.
Second, think about the implications of such an action for low-income consumers. Overdraft opponents argue the service disproportionately affects the poor, but our firm's recent study found that less than 12% of overdraft fees are paid by those at or below the government-defined poverty line.
Currently, the overdraft income generated by higher-income heavy users of the overdraft service subsidizes free checking accounts for low-income consumers. Capping the overdraft income paid by high income accounts means banks would raise monthly fees on checking accounts, driving even more low-income consumers who cannot afford the higher fees to the realm of the unbanked. (In fact, Bloomberg recently reported that the CFPB "has decided against quick action [on overdraft] after hearing from smaller U.S. banks that rely on the revenue.”)
Third, consider the practicalities. The three common ways consumers can overdraw an account are: (1) by using a debit card; (2) at the ATM or (3) by writing a check. The Federal Reserve addressed the first and second ways with changes to Regulation E that took effect in 2010 requiring a consumer's opt-in before the institution can charge an overdraft fee.
As for checks, the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. recently published results of a survey showing the overwhelming majority of banks charge the same amount for a returned check as they do for an overdraft. So, the consumer pays the bank the same amount regardless of whether the check is paid or returned. But, if the check is returned, there is a whole litany of bad consequences for the consumer: merchant-returned check fees, delinquencies reported to credit reporting agencies, late fees, utility reconnect fees, potential criminal implications of passing a bad check, etc.
And finally, let's just say that the government caps overdraft income or prohibits overdrafts on debit cards altogether. What's going to happen? Well, several things – all of which point to the need to correctly manage overdrafts.