Bank of America (BofA) has decided to move forward with charging large monthly maintenance fees to its checking account customers. Yesterday, I received a notice via postal mail from BofA dated March 6, 2015:
"We're updating our checking products and, as a result, the existing checking account listed above will become an Advantage Regular Checking account...
What's not changing
Your account information, including your account number, checks, and debit card all remain the same. Your account features, such as direct deposit, Online and Mobile banking. Bill Pay, as well as accounts linked for overdraft protection, will also remain the same.
Monthly maintenance fee: You can avoid the monthly fee on this account when you meet any ONE of the requirements shown below during each monthly statement cycle. Otherwise, the $25 monthly fee will be deducted from your account. This change takes effect on your first statement cycle that starts on May 15."
I checked the BofA website for any press releases about its price increase. I saw nothing. Not good.
A $25 monthly maintenance fee equals $300 yearly. That's a big price increase. You may remember Bank Transfer Day in 2012, when many consumers moved their money from the big banks to smaller, regional banks and credit unions. Several banks and BofA had tried to raise prices in 2011 by applying monthly maintenance fees, but then reversed their decisions after considerable push-back by consumers.
BofA tried to justify its 2011 price increase by saying their transaction costs had gone up and the, "economics of debit cards have changed," After some research in 2011 (see image on right), I found that BofA partnered with another company, First Data, to create a separate company that actually processes the bank's debit-card transactions, and both share in those debit-card transaction revenues.
That partnership continues today. The 2015 Hoovers profile states:
"The next time you swipe your card and it clears, you might thank Banc of America Merchant Services. A 2009 joint venture between Bank of America and First Data, it is one of the largest processors of electronic payments in the US. The firm handles more than 7 billion check and credit, debit, stored value, payroll, and electronic benefits transfer card transactions (worth a total of some $250 billion) annually. Its clients are small businesses and large corporations including retailers, restaurants, hotels, supermarkets, utilities, gas stations, convenience stores, and government entities. First Data owns 51% of Banc of America Merchant Services, while Bank of America owns 49%."
I'll bet you didn't know this. Most people don't. Most of the big banks have similar arrangements with First Data. So, the big banks make money off your money by investing it (what you'd expect), but also by both charging customers monthly maintenance fees and from collecting revenues from their debit-transaction processing partnership (not what you'd expect). Some people might call making money at both ends of the transaction double-dipping. I do. That didn't pass the smell test in 2011, nor today.
Fast-forward four years, and the transaction cost reason has been replaced with the "updated our checking products" excuse. It's still lame. A price increase is a price increase. Plus, the notice I received from BofA failed to mention any cost cutting done before passing along a huge price increase to its checking customers. That's just bad.
Moreover, the bank's latest price increase couldn't be more confusing. The bank's notice explained how checking customers can avoid the large monthly maintenance fees:
"Keep an average daily balance of $5,000 or more in your checking account or linked Regular Savings account, or
Keep an average daily combined balance of $10,000 or more in checking with linked savings, money market savings, CDs or IRAs, or
Keep an outstanding balance of $15,000 or more in an eligible linked installment loan or line of credit, or
Have $15,000 in total combined assets in your eligible Merrill Edge and Merrill Lynch investment accounts that are linked to your checking account, or
Have a linked Bank of America first mortgage loan that we service."
This reads like legalese written by lawyers. Why not keep it simple and say: keep $5,000 in an account to avoid the monthly maintenance fees. Simplicity matters.
Let's review some more of BofA's history. In August 2014, the bank agreed to a massive settlement with the U.S. Justice Department and several states' attorney generals. The $16.65 billion settlement agreement resolved both federal and state civil investigations into activities by the bank's former and current subsidiaries, including Countrywide Financial Corporation and Merrill Lynch, related to the packaging, marketing, sale, and issuance of residential mortgage-backed securities (RMBS). The bank acquired Merrill Lynch in 2009, and Countrywide in 2008.
To be fair, other big banks have paid massive settlement amounts during the past few years: Bank of America, $61.1 billion; JPMorgan, $31.4 billion; Citigroup, $10 billion; and Wells Fargo, $5.8 billion. A 2012 survey found that junior bank executives view wrongdoing as necessary to advance their careers. Based upon all of this, there clearly seems to be an ethics problem in banking.
I find BofA's reason (e.g., updated their checking products) for its price increase disingenuous. More likely, the price increase was driven profitability concerns given the massive settlement payments. Why not reduce senior executive compensation and bonuses instead (e.g., especially those executives that committed the wrongdoing that led to the massive settlement payments)? Why put the burden on customers?
That BofA decided to place the burden on its customers speaks volumes. Banks can clearly raise prices if they want. They are free to do that. Customers are free to move their money to a bank (or credit union) with lower or no monthly maintenance fees.
I'll make it easy for BofA checking customers to avoid the price increase: move your money to a small, regional bank or credit union. It's easier than you think, and there are a lot of benefits. Last month, Bankrate compared checking account fees between banks and credit unions:
"You're twice as likely to find free checking at a credit union than a bank, according to a new study by Bankrate.com. Nearly three quarters of credit union checking accounts -- 72 percent -- come with no balance requirements or monthly maintenance fees. That's in sharp contrast to banks, where only 38 percent of checking accounts are free... Most of the time, when you encounter dramatically lower prices for the same product, you assume that the cheaper product is somehow inferior. But that's not the case with credit unions, which typically offer services comparable to similarly sized banks. Instead, it comes down to the way credit unions are organized, says Jon Jeffreys, managing partner at Callahan & Associates, a management consultancy that works with credit unions..."
Thankfully, I had already begun to move my money. BofA's latest price-increase notice just accelerated my schedule. While I have sufficient account balances to avoid BofA's new monthly maintenance fees, I simply dislike the way the bank operates. For me, it goes to values.
If you are looking for a small bank or credit union to move your money to, a good resource is the Move Your Money Project. Some consumers have tried to move their money to prepaid cards instead. I believe that is a poor decision, because there usually are many fees with prepaid cards. Plus, experts have advised consumers to be wary of prepaid card protections.
What are your opinions of Bank of America? Of its latest price increase? Has your bank increased prices?