SAN FRANCISCO - Even as Wells Fargo & Co.'s bidding war for First Interstate Bancorp rages on, Wells is attacking the California banking industry with a new low-fee checking account.
Custom Access, introduced last week, appears to be the cheapest electronic banking and checking account in the state, and possibly in the country. Rival bankers say they may have to cut their own account fees to stay competitive.
"I think it will cause all of us competitors to take a look at a new mark on the pricing map," said Richard C. Hartnack, vice chairman and retail banking chief of Wells' crosstown rival, Union Bank. He added that Union is likely to "be emulating a large part" of the new Wells account in the near future.
Custom Access carries no monthly account fees if customers make all of their routine deposits and withdrawals at automated teller machines. Customers must also have their paychecks electronically disbursed through direct deposit, and let the bank store their checks.
Going to a branch to complete a transaction that could have been handled at an ATM costs $5 per visit.
Those who agree to this trade-off get unusually cheap pricing and a bundle of other services. For example, the account doesn't have a monthly service charge or a minimum balance requirement.
Personal computer banking is also free, either through the Internet, or Quicken or Microsoft Money software.
Other fees that are waived include the $1 monthly fee for debit card purchases, the $1 fee for using an ATM to print out your last 10 transactions (four free printouts are allowed per month), and most telephone service fees.
Anything more than three calls a month to a live banker costs $1.50 for each extra call.
Other banks have offered free checking accounts, or free PC banking. But no big bank is known to have offered both, according to Wells officials, other bankers, and industry consultants.
For example, Citibank earlier this year attracted a lot of attention when it said it would eliminate fees for electronic banking. But it still charges fees for checking accounts, or requires minimum balances.
Likewise, First National Bank of Chicago got a spate of negative publicity when it introduced ATM checking accounts. One of these accounts is free of monthly service fees. But the bank charges $9.95 for personal computer banking.
Wells' biggest California rivals also don't match its low-fee, all- electronic offer. For instance, Bank of America also waives monthly fees for an ATM checking account, but it charges $6.95 a month for PC banking, and also charges fees for statement printouts and debit card purchases.
First Interstate Bank of California charges monthly fees or requires minimum balances on all of its checking accounts. It also charges for personal computer banking.
Among California's biggest banks, Union Bank comes closest to Wells' offer. Some branches are offering free-checking on a promotional basis. Free checking is also available to people over 55, or people who get direct deposits. But the bank plans to charge monthly fees for PC banking, after waiving the charges for a year, and offer a $50 rebate.