Banks want a little more

Fees are going up, which is unusual during a recession

The New York TimesJuly 5, 2009 

  • Consumer advocates suggest:

    Compare the fees charged by big banks with those of credit unions and community lenders in your area.

    Whenever possible, use an ATM in your bank's network.

    If you need cash and there's not an in-network ATM near, consider the cash-back option available at many grocery stores.

    If you do incur fees, ask your bank manager about waiving some, or all, of them.

    The New York Times

Bounced check: $32. Stop-payment: $30. ATM charge: as high as $3.

Even now, after all those bailouts, banks never seem to tire of dipping a little deeper into your wallet. Despite the tough economic times and increased scrutiny from Washington, they are keeping most fees at record highs, and some are eking out slight increases on others such as overdraft charges, a step they rarely took during past recessions.

The result? Americans are paying more to save and spend their money.

And while the increases are relatively small by historical standards, they illustrate how banks are looking for almost any nugget of income to help offset huge loan losses and lower revenue as consumers buckle down on spending.

The nation's biggest banks -- those that got the biggest bailouts from taxpayers and are now emerging to dominate the industry -- charge fees that are on average at least 20 percent higher than those at smaller lenders, according to Moebs Services, a economic research firm used by banks and federal regulators.

Some of the charges are getting more creative. Several big banks -- including JPMorgan Chase, US Bancorp and Wells Fargo -- recently began billing some small-business customers for federal deposit insurance increases. Citigroup and PNC Financial assess an international transaction fee of about 3 percent fee when customers swipe debit cards overseas.

Bank of America recently introduced a raft of changes. In June, it raised the fees on its basic monthly checking account to $8.95 from $5.95. In April, the bank considered raising its overdraft charge to $39, nearly double what the typical bank charged a decade ago. It only backed down after consumers erupted, tweaking its rules to keep its initial fee at $35.

And then there are credit cards: Banks are scrambling to raise rates and fees before a credit card reform bill that President Barack Obama signed into law last month takes effect. JPMorgan Chase recently announced it would raise some balance transfer fees to 5 percent from 3 percent in August. Citigroup, Bank of America and other lenders have also been increasing the interest rates for millions of cardholders.

Overall, fees at the biggest banks are running at their highest levels on record. The average ATM charge, which generates billions of dollars for banks annually, rose at the end of 2008 to $1.97, up from $1.78 the year before and nearly double the 89 cent average recorded in 1998, according to Bankrate.com. Other charges are more eye-popping: Today's typical $30 stop-payment fee is about twice as much as a decade ago, according to Moebs.

But the most unexpected change has occurred in overdraft fees, the industry's most lucrative and controversial charge, which rose to an average of $26 after four years at $25.

That is only a modest 4 percent increase, compared with the double-digit overdraft fee increases a few years ago, when charges rose to $25 from $22. But amid intense scrutiny from regulators and lawmakers, consumer advocates -- and even some bankers-- are surprised.

"We've never seen a price increase during a recession," said Michael Moebs, the chief economist and founder of the research firm that analyzed the fee data at more than 2,200 lenders. "What the bankers are saying is that I want to maintain my revenue."

Large banks, which tend to charge the highest fees, incur a host of expenses that smaller banks do not, including high nationwide advertising bills and the costs of operating networks of ATMs and retail branches. Many smaller banks are also struggling to offset losses and dwindling revenue.

As consumers themselves rein in their finances, raising the overdraft fee has become an easy target. With fewer customers overdrawing their accounts, overdraft fees risk shrinking to a smaller income stream from what Moebs estimates is a $38.5 billion business this year. That is, unless banks raise fees on customers who run into trouble.

Aaron Fine, a retail banking consultant at Oliver Wyman, said that overdraft fee income could fall 5 percent to 20 percent for some banks in the second and third quarter. "That is the multibillion-dollar question," he said. "How do you replace those fees with something else?"

Regulators and lawmakers say they plan to crack down on excessive service fees, just as they did with a new bill barring unfair credit card practices. Federal Reserve officials have proposed new rules that would let debit and ATM customers "opt in" for overdraft protection or allow existing customers to opt out of the service. A decision could come later this year.

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