Banks cry poor, hike account fees: Are they bluffing?

a clerk at Citibank writes something downA new study says a forthcoming crackdown on certain fees could cost big banks billions, but it's not clear that the impact will be as bad as they claim -- even as they blame these regulations for high checking-account fees they're foisting on customers.

First, some background: Legislation passed in July gives the Federal Reserve the power to set limits on how much an issuing bank can charge a store when a customer uses that bank's debit card to pay for their purchases. Despite the fact that banks like to market debit cards by saying they're the same as cash but better, this comparison doesn't extend to the merchant's point of view.

Retailers pay a lot to take your debit cards: $22.8 billion each year, according to, which conducted a research project to study the issue. CardHub concluded that if the Fed made big banks lower their fees by 20%, they'd collectively lose $3.6 billion, or $7.30 per card, each year. If fees dropped by 35% on the Fed's order, those figures would be $6.4 billion and $12.84, respectively. Finally, if the Fed cracked down in a really big way and slashed current fees by half, banks would lose $9.1 billion annually, or $18.35 per card.

This article in the Wall Street Journal (generally a pro-bank publication) grabs onto the most dire of CardHub's stats for its analysis, raising the alarm that banks could lose $9 billion a year. In reality, though, this is unlikely, says Odysseas Papadimitriou, founder and CEO of CardHub. "My guess is that they will go conservatively," he tells WalletPop. "I think the 50% is the least likely. I wouldn't be surprised if they act conservatively at 20%, consider the market reaction and go from there," he says.

Nonetheless, banks point to the prospect of these fees as the reason some of them are sharply hiking rates on consumer checking account. The Journal article lists two examples already being rolled out -- a nearly $9 monthly fee on a basic checking account from Bank of America, and an $8 monthly fee on Citi's version -- and accepts the industry's assertion that they're just trying to recoup their losses. But do the math, and another picture emerges.

A year -- that is, 12 months -- times $8 a month is $96. Even under the more dire prediction, in which banks were forced to cut their interchange fees in half (an unlikely scenario), banks would still only be out $18.35 per cardholder. They lose $18.35 at most, and probably something closer to $7.30, and you pay them $96 as a result. Does that seem fair?

Papadimitriou says big banks will try to get around this by switching lower-balance account holders to prepaid debit cards. If you want the ability to still write checks, though (and not get dinged with the many fees that often characterize prepaid cards), there are other options. Small banks are exempt from this new legislation, so Papadimitriou says this means they'll probably step up their game and offer more competitive products -- like checking accounts that don't charge you the price of a paperback book each month.
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