LOS ANGELES - When Bank of America (BAC) announced a new deposit account with a reliable $4.95 monthly fee, some industry observers questioned whether the Charlotte, N.C., company could squeeze out a profit.
The account doesn't come with overdraft fees, is designed for consumers with low balances and generates less swipe-fee revenue than many of the prepaid cards it competes against.
B of A executive Kevin Condon on Friday acknowledged that the company isn't expecting to earn a profit from the SafeBalance account. "We're offering it at, call it a breakeven proposition," he said during remarks at a conference, co-sponsored by American Banker, on innovation in consumer financial services.
The account, rolled out in a handful of states in March, is now available in B of A branches nationally.
SafeBalance does not include paper checks, but unlike many of the prepaid cards offered by other banks, it does come with an online bill pay service. Customers can also use debit cards and mobile money transfers to make payments.
Beyond the monthly fee, customers pay an added charge to use ATMs at other banks. "But there are no surprise fees or unexpected fees on the account," said Condon, senior vice president of deposit products at Bank of America.
Bank of America is not marketing the new account, but that's also true of the Charlotte-based bank's other checking accounts, according to Condon.
He said that B of A branch employees will discuss the account with customers who raise concerns about overdraft fees, as well as those who frequently overdraw their accounts.
Asked during a question-and-answer session whether the SafeBalance is designed for existing B of A customers, or to attract new ones, Condon responded: "The primary goal, I would say, is to serve our existing customers in new ways."
"That said, we know that new customers will hear about this, and get excited about it," Condon added. "And we welcome the opportunity to serve them."
If B of A had designed the product as a prepaid card, and the account did not offer online bill pay, the company could have avoided the statutory cap on debit swipe fees for large banks.
"Prepaid was something that we looked at very seriously," Condon said.
One of the reasons B of A chose not to issue a prepaid card, he added, is that consumers who provided feedback made clear that they wanted to be part of the mainstream banking system.