Dale McFeatters: Retreat on bank fees

By Dale McFeatters

Scripps Howard News Service

Published: Thursday, Nov. 3 2011 12:00 a.m. MDT

The exterior of Bank of America bank is seen in Palo Alto, Calif., Monday, Oct. 18, 2010.

Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

Bank of America became the last bank to rescind the short-lived plan to impose a monthly $5 debit card fee because, as a senior bank official explained, "We have listened very closely to our customers over the last few weeks . . . "

How closely do you have to listen when your customers blanket the social media with protests, including 300,000 signatures opposing the move organized by one 22-year-old woman in Washington state and a grassroots campaign calling for people to pull their money out of banks that charge the fee in favor of community banks and credit unions?

Adding to the din that Bank of America discerned by listening "very closely" was the ridicule of late-night comedians, the suggestion by President Barack Obama that this showed the need for a regulator "whose sole job is to prevent this kind of stuff from happening," Vice President Joe Biden calling the move "incredibly tone deaf," and the No. 2 Senate Democrat, Richard Durbin of Illinois, calling on customers to "vote with your feet" and "get the heck out of that bank."

Since last Friday, J.P. Morgan Chase, Wells Fargo, SunTrust, Regions Financial and First Horizon all announced plans to scrap their planned debit card fees. It didn't take Bank of America long to see which way that parade was headed and Tuesday it too dropped the planned fee.

The banks are trying to recoup the $8.6 billion in annual "swipe fees" they say they will lose starting in 2012 on top of $5.6 billion already being lost to limits on overdraft fees thanks to new federal regulation. Analysts say the banks will inevitably try to make up those losses but in craftier and less visible ways that won't arouse consumer outrage.

The Wall Street Journal said the abrupt about-face on debit fees represented "a swift retreat in an industry that is at times known for its lumbering decision making." Now, if the banks would only show some of that same speed and decisiveness in cleaning up the foreclosure mess the public might be willing to hit the "reset" button on its opinion of the big banks.

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