Could the CFPB stop a debit-card charge?

By Felix Salmon
October 4, 2011
the president, does Bank of America's $5 debit-card fee really show the need for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau?

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Pace the president, does Bank of America’s $5 debit-card fee really show the need for the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau? Not really: the CFPB does not exist to prevent banks from charging stupid fees as part of a self-defeating protest against the Durbin amendment. If BofA wants to charge $5, or $50, or even $500 to people using its debit cards, then so long as it gives them fair warning, does so transparently, and is happy to see them close their accounts, it should be allowed to do so.

The fact that the fee was a mistake can be seen easily by the fact that it caused a huge uproar, while much bigger increases to Citibank’s monthly checking-account fee went largely unremarked-upon. At Citibank, the basic free-checking account now carries a $10 fee, waived if you use direct deposit or have a $1,500 average balance. And Citi’s more fully-featured checking account, which used to have a $12 monthly fee, has seen that increased to $20; in order to avoid that fee, the average balance has also been raised, from $6,000 to $10,000.

The era of big-bank free checking is over. But that has nothing to do with Durbin, and everything to do with the regulation of overdraft fees. (And, of course, low interest rates.) If banks need to charge a monthly fee in order to make money on their checking accounts, then so be it. But I do think that the current level of checking-account fees is excessive, and that charging for debit transactions is downright idiotic.

All four of the big banks have a standard checking account with a monthly fee which is waived once you keep a monthly balance of more than $1,500. At Wells Fargo, that fee is $5. At Citi, it’s $10. At Chase, it’s $12. And at BofA, it’s also $12, rising to $17 if you use your debit card.

Then there’s the next tier up, where fees only get waived once you have a significant amount of money on deposit. Again, Wells Fargo has the best deal: the minimum is $5,000, and if you drop below it, the charge is $15 per month. At Citi, it’s $15,000 or $20/month. At Chase, it’s $15,000 or $25/month. And at BofA, it’s $10,000 or $25/month — plus that $5/month fee for debit-card usage, even for people keeping a five-figure sum on deposit. That fee only gets waived once you reach $20,000 on deposit.

What expensive services are the banks providing which require fees of hundreds of dollars a year? Branches, mainly, and tellers, and paper statements. And, of course, the enormous overhead associated with being a huge global bank. It’s certainly not debit-card payments — which are pretty much the cheapest way that any customer can transact, from the bank’s perspective. It costs vastly more for a bank to process a paper check than it does for them to process a debit-card payment — so why would they charge an extra monthly fee for the latter and not for the former?

I’m all in favor of banks charging a reasonable fee for expensive services, rather than trying to hide the cost of those services in painful and unexpected charges. But my idea of “reasonable” is more or less what we charge at Lower East Side People’s: $3 a month, for people carrying a balance of less than $75 — essentially, a way to discourage people from keeping bank accounts open and unused with no money on deposit.

As for the proper role of the CFPB, one thing I’m desperately looking forward to is a simple public database of all the banks offering federally-insured checking accounts, with a very easy way of comparing the features and fees of each. It would be particularly great if the CFPB could bestow some kind of gold star on the best and cheapest products, and could thereby help steer Americans away from bad accounts at megabanks, and towards much better accounts at smaller banks and credit unions.

Although, if BofA continues to carry on like this, I reckon it’ll lose a lot of customers anyway, sooner or later.

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