Bank Transfer Day a boon to credit unions, small banks

Elliott Seif of Mount Airy banks with Valley Green, the small Northwest Philadelphia bank. Credit unions are also big winners, adding 650,000 members, since Bank of America announced fees.
Elliott Seif of Mount Airy banks with Valley Green, the small Northwest Philadelphia bank. Credit unions are also big winners, adding 650,000 members, since Bank of America announced fees. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: November 06, 2011

Five weeks after Bank of America announced a $5 monthly fee for debit-card use and blamed it on new financial rules, and four days after Bank of America did an about-face after other large banks dropped similar plans, John Gorham and Julie Glover made their own change in direction.

The Mount Airy couple joined a nationwide campaign touted on Facebook as "Bank Transfer Day" and promoted by some of the same protesters camped out near Wall Street, by Philadelphia's City Hall, and around the country. Gorham and Glover opened a checking account Saturday at Valley Green Bank, a small Northwest Philadelphia bank, and plan to close their account at Bank of America.

"We're happy to be a part in a small way of what's going on," said Gorham, 38, a manager at an insurance company. "We've been following the Occupy Wall Street demonstrations. Like a lot of people in our generation, we feel a frustration about the lack of a level playing field."

Until banks report their fourth-quarter results early next year, it will be tough to say whether Bank Transfer Day or a similar campaign dubbed "Move Your Money Day" has had a noticeable effect on a U.S. banking industry dominated by a handful of multibillion-dollar banks.

But after Bank of America Corp. announced its plan to collect $60 a year from each of its millions of debit-card users, to compensate for caps on transaction fees imposed by last year's Dodd-Frank financial overhaul, it quickly became clear that the bank had ignited a firestorm - not just over bank fees, but over continuing anger at major financial institutions for their role in the housing bubble, the 2008 financial crisis, and the ongoing economic slump.

Sen. Richard J. Durbin (D., Ill.), whose amendment required the Federal Reserve to cap the fees at an amount "reasonable and proportional" to banks' costs, added fuel in a speech defending the caps, which are expected to cost large banks $6 billion to $8 billion a year and which he said would "reduce costs to retailers and consumers across America." He told bank customers:

"Vote with your feet. Get the heck out of that bank and find yourself a bank or a credit union that won't gouge you for $5 a month and still will give you a debit card that you can use every single day."

Kristen Christian, the California small-business owner who started Facebook's Bank Transfer Day campaign, says she has no connection to Occupy Wall Street. But the event's Facebook page says Christian "believes we can pull ourselves out of this economic mess the big banks caused by investing in local not-for-profit credit unions."

The Progressive Change Campaign Committee, one of several groups promoting Saturday as Move Your Money Day, did not hesitate to draw such a link.

"The reason why it's caught fire across the country is because of the change in conversation that Occupy Wall Street has inspired," said spokesman Neil Sroka. "We're actually talking about things like income inequality. . ., and the degree that big banks have control."

Credit unions appear to be benefiting. The Credit Union National Association said Thursday that since Bank of America's debit fee was announced, credit unions had added 650,000 members - vs. 80,000 in an ordinary month - and $4.5 billion in deposits.

In the Philadelphia region, Bank Transfer Day was also promoted by smaller banks, such as Valley Green, which has two branches, and Univest, a midsize regional bank with 32 Montgomery and Bucks branches.

Leon Moyer, Univest's chief executive officer, said the bank saw the grassroots campaign as a chance to build on what it has been doing successfully since the financial crisis: Promote local banking.

"We just feel like community banks are painted with that same broad brush as Wall Street," Moyer said Saturday. "We're here on Main Street, taking care of the needs of our customers - consumers and small-business owners."

Frustration with large banks was evident among customers Saturday.

Dana Sheehan, a Valley Green customer, said she and her husband moved from TD Bank after a continuing problem with debit-card overdrafts that she said seemed encouraged by the bank's policies. The last straw was when the bank reported a 1-cent balance in a loan account She had repeatedly tried to pay off in full - then reported the account as delinquent to the credit bureaus.

"We couldn't get a real person to deal with it," she said.

After the firestorm over Bank of America's fees, industry representatives have tread carefully on criticism.

Ken Clayton, chief counsel of the American Bankers Association, said customers should be careful not to focus overly on fees and overlook what they get in return, such as round-the-clock, worldwide access to their funds. "People should look at their financial institution and see if it's providing the services they want," Clayton said. "If it meets your needs and the fees seem reasonable, that's where you should bank."


Contact staff writer Jeff Gelles

at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com.

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