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Why banks shun 30 million Americans

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Steven Senne/AP/File

(Read caption) A pedestrian walks by a check-cashing store in Boston's Jamaica Plain district in this 2003 file photo. Some 30 million Americans rely on check-cashing stores, payday lenders, and pawnbrokers for at least some of their banking needs.

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They are 30 million consumers, representing a quarter of US households, who earn a collective $1.3 trillion a year. But banks don’t want to serve them, because they lose money. And the nonfinancial institutions who do serve them may not be offering them much value in the long term.

Welcome to the world of the unbanked and underbanked, who in a weird twist may have fewer banking options after Congress passed legislation aimed at protecting them from high bank fees. So who will serve these consumers,  who either use no mainstream financial services or have a checking or savings account but also utilize nonbank financial services such as check cashers, payday lenders, and pawnbrokers? A huge opportunity awaits someone.

In the good old days, banks would have stepped in. They received substantial revenue from interchange and overdraft fees, which essentially subsidized checking and savings accounts. But financial reform passed by Congress in 2010 brought the so-called Durbin amendment, which slashed banks’ profits on debit card transactions, and Regulation E, which severely limited the overdraft fees that banks could charge.

In response, many banks have instigated high fees that effectively discourage low-income customers from opening (or keeping) accounts. It’s not by accident.  To get a sense of why banks aren’t terribly interested in serving low-income customers, take a look at the following example. Imagine it’s 2007, pre-crisis and pre-regulation.

Let’s assume each deposit account costs the bank $250 a year to maintain regardless of the balance of the account. Adam deposits $10,000 into his bank account, while Brenda deposits $100. The bank loans out that money at 7 percent interest, making $700 off Adam and $7 off Brenda. They pay each customer an interest rate of 1 percent, meaning that Adam earns $100 in interest, and Brenda earns $1. But since each account costs the bank $250 to maintain, the bank makes $350 off Adam and loses $244 on Brenda.

Although Brenda’s deposit earns less in interest than it costs to maintain, the bank also makes money every time she swipes her debit card and every time she incurs an overdraft fee. The latter was particularly lucrative for banks, particularly because low-income customers, who tend to have lower balances, are disproportionately more likely to incur overdraft fees. Ten such charges a year would cover the cost of her checking account, even without revenue from debit card transactions.

Today, that equation looks much different: The bank now lends at 5 percent interest, and pays out 0.1 percent on deposits. Adam’s account earns the bank $500, while he only receives $10 in interest; Brenda’s garners only $5, and she earns 10 cents in interest. On balance, Adam’s account is still profitable for the bank: it nets $245. The bank now loses $245.10 on Brenda’s account, and can no longer count on swipe or overdraft fees to make up the difference. There’s no incentive to hold onto a large number of low-income accountholders. Quite the opposite.

Big retailers fill the void

By contrast, some big retailers are offering financial services that actively court low-income people. Stores like Walmart and Best Buy can take advantage of economies of scale, as well as boost in-store sales if they offer financial services to shoppers. Beyond this, Walmart doesn’t offer deposit accounts, so it doesn’t have to worry about the cost of maintaining them, or about paying interest to accountholders. Instead, Walmart makes a profit by charging fees to cash checks or buy prepaid debit cards.

 

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