Bank of America rethinking debit fees

Posted Nov. 01, 2011, at 12:37 p.m.

NEW YORK — Bank of America, the biggest U.S. debit-card issuer, may face pressure to scrap plans to impose a monthly fee on some card users after its largest competitors abandoned the strategy amid a consumer rebellion.

Wells Fargo, the No. 2 debit-card issuer, said last week it had decided not to charge depositors $3 a month for debit cards after testing the fee in five states. Atlanta-based SunTrust Banks and Regions Financial, based in Birmingham, Alabama, said Monday they would eliminate monthly check-card fees in response to customer feedback.

“They’re in a tight spot,” Jefferson Harralson, an analyst at KBW Inc., said of Charlotte, N.C.-based Bank of America, which plans to impose a $5 monthly fee on some customers beginning in January. “Bank of America would prefer to keep the fee because they think it’s a fair price for the services they’re offering. At the same time, you are seeing a very strong reaction.”

Card-issuers are seeking alternative revenue sources after caps on debit-card transaction fees took effect last month. The limits, mandated by the Dodd-Frank Act, may cut annual revenue by $8 billion at the biggest U.S. banks, according to data compiled by Bloomberg Government.

Citigroup, which doesn’t impose debit-card fees on customers, will charge checking customers $10 a month unless they maintain a $1,500 average monthly minimum balance or make one online bill payment and one direct deposit per month, the New York-based bank said in September.

“We asked customers what they thought about it,” Stephen Troutner, head of U.S. consumer and small-business banking products at Citigroup, said in an emailed statement. “They said that it would be a massive source of irritation for them. They spoke. We listened.”

JPMorgan Chase, the third-biggest debit-card issuer, opted against charging debit-card fees, the Wall Street Journal reported. Minneapolis-based U.S. Bancorp, the No. 4 debit-card issuer, said Oct. 19 it has no plans to assess a fee.

Lawmakers and President Barack Obama spoke out against Bank of America’s fee decision after it was announced in September. Sen. Dick Durbin, the Illinois Democrat who pushed the debit caps through Congress, called on Bank of America customers to “get the heck out of that bank.” Obama questioned whether the lender has an “inherent right” to charge the fee.

Betty Riess, a Bank of America spokeswoman, declined to comment.

If competitors, lawmakers and customers continue to speak out against Bank of America’s fee, the company may be forced to back down, Marty Mosby, an analyst at Guggenheim Securities, said in a phone interview.

Bank of America could cite its scale as a “convenience” in arguing to keep the fee, Mosby said. The lender also may stress to customers that the extra charge can be avoided if they have at least $20,000 in their accounts, a mortgage from the lender or brokerage accounts with Merrill Lynch. The fee also helps the bank eliminate unprofitable customers, Mosby said.

“They want to create an event that tells the customer either be on board, or maybe it doesn’t make sense to clog up our system,” Mosby said. “Getting rid of the customers that aren’t profitable, that aren’t going to cover their cost, is as valuable as increasing the revenue off a different customer.”

Some regional banks already have taken steps to eliminate customer fees. Huntington Bancshares Inc., based in Columbus, Ohio, rolled out an unconditional free checking account even after determining that regulations including the debit-caps and account features such as a 24-hour grace period for overdrafts may reduce 2011 revenue by $130 million.

BB&T Corp. has no plans to charge for debit cards, Cynthia Williams, a spokeswoman for the Winston-Salem, N.C.- based bank, said in an e-mailed statement.

The consumer backlash against debit-card charges “mystified the banks because they were trying to charge five or 10 percent of their customers with a fee,” Brian Foran, an analyst at Nomura Holdings in New York, said in a phone interview. “People seem to have a visceral reaction.”

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