Banks find ways to charge fees

New rules curtailed revenues

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NEW YORK — Big banks, facing declining revenues and a regulatory climate that leaves them fewer creative ways to make money, are quietly introducing or experimenting with fees that are sure to outrage customers.

Bank of America was shouted down by angry cust­o­mers last fall when it tried to impose a $5 monthly fee for using a debit card. JPMorgan Chase and Wells Fargo backed off plans to impose their own fees.

Nevertheless, the major banks have imposed or are testing other fees:

• Since November, Wells Fargo has charged $15 a month for some checking accounts unless customers have three accounts with the bank, maintain a minimum balance of $7,500 or have a Wells Fargo mortgage.

• Some Citibank customers are being charged $20 a month unless they keep $15,000 in their accounts, up from $6,000 before December. They’re also being dinged with a $2 fee for using non-Citi ATMs if their balance falls below the minimum.

• Bank of America, even after a backlash last fall when it tried to impose a $5 monthly fee for debit card transactions, is testing a menu of checking accounts in Georgia, Massachusetts and Arizona with monthly fees of $6 to $25.

NOTHING IN BANKING is free anymore. All of the largest banks in the United States offered free checking with no strings attached until 2009, and almost none do today, said Mike Moebs, the founder of Moebs Services, a financial research company.

What wasn’t free before costs a lot more these days, too: Moebs’ research shows cashiers’ checks that used to cost $3 now cost as much as $12, and the cost to get money orders has doubled to $2 at the largest banks.

The big banks are public companies and are expected to make a profit somehow, and it’s not as easy as it used to be.

Historically, banks have made money off of something called interest rate spreads. They borrowed money cheaply, loaned it out at higher interest rates and pocketed the difference.

Interest rates are at historic lows, though, making it harder for banks to charge high rates when they lend and squeezing their profits.

REGULATORY RULES SINCE 2009 also have curtailed traditional bank fees, costing them billions of dollars. Banks were barred in 2010 from automatically enrolling customers in a service that charged them as much as $35 for overdrafts on their checking accounts.

Another law barred banks from charging fees and changing interest rates on credit cards without notifying customers.

Banks’ revenues have dwindled since these laws came into effect. Bank of America’s revenue last year was $93 billion, compared with $121 billion two years before. Wells Fargo took in $81 billion last year, down from $89 billion in 2009.

Banks are trying to figure out how to make up that cost, but their fees are landing hard on customers in a country with 8.3 percent unemployment, some of whom point out that it was taxpayers who bailed out the banks less than four years ago.

The $5 debit card fee that Bank of America announced on Sept. 29 became a flashpoint of anger, including for protesters in the Occupy movement.

The bank said it was triggered by a federal law championed by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Ill., that went into effect Oct. 1. It capped what banks charge stores for debit card transactions at 24 cents, down from an average of 44 cents.

The law cut into quarterly revenue at Bank of America by $475 million, at JPMorgan Chase by $300 million and at Wells Fargo by $250 million.

Nevertheless, after public outrage, those three banks, plus SunTrust Banks Inc. and Regions Financial Corp., all backed down from plans to charge monthly fees for debit card purchases.

Bank of America says it is “not planning to increase checking account fees with our existing customers.” Of the tests in Arizona, Georgia and Massachusetts, it says it is “continuing to learn” from them and has made no decisions.

Some bank executives say the political environment has made it difficult for them to charge for their services. Todd Maclin, head of consumer banking at JPMorgan Chase, points out that banking is cheaper than a cellphone, a cable TV or a gym membership.

“But still we don’t expect that you’re going to be able to increase in this environment,” he says, referring to prices.

Still, Chase and the other large banks have increased monthly fees by an average of $10 for checking accounts in the last two years. They also introduced fees of $2 and $3 for small services like printed statements and canceled checks.

Consumer advocates say they worry that the fees will push people out of banking and toward more expensive services, like payday lenders and loan sharks.

“A significant part of the population will be squeezed out of banks because they can’t afford it,” says Nancy Bush, founder of banking research group NAB, and columnist at SNL Financial, “and that is absolutely wrong.”


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