New rules to limit fees banks charge on overdrafts and credit card transactions are expected to result in new charges for basic banking services. In recent years offers of free checking accounts without minimum balance requirements made it possible for low-income customers to establish bank accounts in lieu of using high cost check-cashing outlets. To off-set lost revenue from new bank regulations, and to speed their recovery from losses resulting from sub-prime lending, banks will begin charging customers whose business does not generate sufficient revenue to cover the costs of their free checking accounts.
According to an article in today’s Wall Street Journal it typically cost a bank $250 to $300 per year to maintain one checking account. Customers who use multiple services such as home mortgage and/or home improvement loans, open investment accounts or have high credit card activity, easily cover the cost of a free checking account and will likely continue to enjoy this perquisite. The poor, who do not have the means to use these more “profitable” products, will face paying higher fees or be forced back to the check-cashing stores.
Although from a pure economic point of view basic low cost checking and savings accounts at banks or credit unions will still be a better deal for the poor than the cost of using check cashers and pay-day lenders, the added burden of the higher fees will likely deter many from establishing or maintaining accounts with reputable financial institutions. This needn’t and shouldn’t be so.
Many products the more affluent bank customers use, which entitle them to free basic banking services, have built in tax subsidies that make them even more attractive and affordable. I refer to the interest deductability of the home mortgage interest expense and the income sheltering capability of such investment products as health savings accounts, individual retirement accounts (IRAs) and 529 college savings plans. Such products are estimated to provide hundreds of billions of dollars in benefits annually to those with the income to take advantage of them. This is not a bad thing. But where are the beneficial products for the less well off?
Financial institutions have a right to cover the cost of their services but they should also be encouraged, perhaps required, to provide services low income families need and want at prices they can afford. Technology is bringing down the cost of basic banking services around the world. Countries such as Kenya and Pakistan offer low cost mobile banking services to the poor why can’t we do the same in the United States?
Checking accounts are expensive, “low tech” and outdated. Banks have been trying to get their clients to “go paperless” for years. That is why if one has the means to access one’s accounts on-line and execute financial transactions electronically, one enjoys lower pricing and a full range of banking services. Financial institutions should be welcoming lower income clients with Individual Development Accounts (IDAs which function like IRAs but can be used of education and saving for starting a business or buying a home), low cost electronic passbook savings accounts and stored value cards for making payments and on-line purchases.
Creating such products is not rocket science—it’s being done in developing economies. There is no excuse for not developing this technology to serve the poor in the United States.