The banks want more money, and they’ve found a way to get it: by raising account fees.
To make up for declining revenue, many banks are raising fees and are requiring higher minimum balances for many accounts. Customers are paying more to maintain a checking account, to withdraw cash from an out-of-system ATM and when they bounce a check.
The institutions also have made it easier for customers to spend more than is in their accounts — and then hit them with substantial fees.
Foreclosures and rising credit-card delinquencies are hurting banks, and Congress recently passed a law cracking down on arbitrary and excessive credit-card fees. So the banks have been fighting back.
Moebs Services, an economic-research firm that provides data to the federal government, estimates that overdraft revenue for banks will reach $38.5 billion this year.
“There is an economic storm that has made revenue fall,” said Michael Moebs, an economist and chief executive of Moebs Services. “Fee income is basically where banks and credit unions can offset both loan- and investment-related losses.”
Banks and credit unions in Arkansas generally are increasing fees only slightly, if at all, Moebs said. Only banks with more than $50 billion in assets are increasing fees significantly, Moebs said.
All financial institutions in Arkansas, which have less than $11 billion in assets, are classified as “Main Street banks” by Moebs Services, Moebs said.
The average overdraft fee for “Main Street banks” is $26, compared with $32 for the country’s largest banks, Moebs said.
Arvest Bank, the largest bank based in the state with $10.8 billion in assets, has two overdraft fees, depending on the account a customer has, said Ron Witherspoon, an executive vice president in Little Rock. Those fees are $15.93 and $17.43, Witherspoon said.
Bank of the Ozarks’ overdraft fee is $31 and Centennial Bank’s charge for an overdraft is $30, spokesmen at those banks said. Neither bank has raised the fee in the past couple of years.
Bank of America this year raised the maximum number of times customers can get hit with overdraft fees from five a day to 10. On top of that, it began charging a one-time fee of $35 if the account remains in the negative for more than five days. The bank also raised the monthly fee on My Access checking accounts to $8.95 from $5.95.
“The most consistent increases have been seen on punitivetype fees such as bounced-check charges and ATM fees, and those are the two categories of fees that are easiest to avoid,” said Greg McBride, senior financial analyst for Bankrate.com, which tracks the banking industry.
In a study of fees last year, Bankrate.com found that the average bounced-check fee rose 2.5 percent from 2007 to nearly $30. The average ATM surcharge in 2008 was up more than 10 percent to almost $2. To avoid monthly fees on accounts that pay interest, customers had to maintain an average of $3,461.84 in their checking accounts, up 4 percent from the year before.
The median overdraft fee will rise to $27.50 this year, up from $25 last year, Moebs said.
Banking officials said they are reacting to market forces.
“I think when you look at the whole — all of the fees overall — the landscape has changed and that has meant rising costs for our industry,” said Anne Pace, a spokesman for Bank of America. “For the bank to continue offering competitive products and services, and making sure we are lending responsibly in the current environment, we have to adjust our prices.”
She said that in some cases, the bank changes have favored consumers. For instance, she said, the bank reduced the overdraft fee to $10 an item if overdrafts in a day total $5 or less.
Overdraft fees have become an important source of income for banks. Years ago, banks rarely approved point-of-sale debit transactions when the money to cover the cost was not available in the customer’s account. The overdraft fee was used primarily as a penalty to keep customers from spending more than they had. Then they became too profitable for banks not to embrace. A 2008 Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. study found that insufficient funds or overdraft fees made up 74 percent of service charges on deposit accounts.
Consumer advocates said overdraft fees are a danger because they can quickly add up and eat into people’s available cash when many are mired in debt. Banks too often charge disproportionately for the service, advocates said.
“The purpose of overdraft protection or courtesy overdraft, as it’s often called, is to turn something that’s like a parking ticket into a profit center,” said Ed Mierzwinski, consumer program director at the U.S. Public Interest Research Group.
Jean Ann Fox, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America, said overdraft programs are often not explained when consumers open accounts, and many don’t have opt-out provisions. In a survey of the 16 largest banks, the federation found that all of them charged overdraft fees without the consumer’s consent.
“If I were a bank, I wouldn’t want to tell you I would charge you $70 for letting you overdraw $20,” Fox said.
The Federal Reserve has taken notice and is considering rules that would crack down on automatic overdraft protection. But consumer advocates said the rules would not go far enough because, for one thing, they would not cap overdraft fees.
Rep. Carolyn B. Maloney, DN.Y., who was instrumental in getting the new credit-card law passed in May, has proposed a bill that would require banks to notify customers when an ATM or debitcard transaction is about to trigger an overdraft fee and give them a chance to decline the service.
But Scott Talbott, senior vice president of government affairs for the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry group, said consumers can avoid such fees if they are proactive. That means reading their account contracts to understand specifics of their bank’s programs and fees — and asking questions, he said.
“The key is to take charge of your financial situation and eliminate any uncertainty to avoid gotcha moments,” he said.