Give Occupy credit for trend away from megabanks

An Occupy Philly protester is arrested last month after demonstrating in the lobby of a Wells Fargo bank at 17th and Market streets.
An Occupy Philly protester is arrested last month after demonstrating in the lobby of a Wells Fargo bank at 17th and Market streets. (MICHAEL BRYANT / STAFF PHOTOGRAPHER)
Posted: December 15, 2011

FOR TWO MONTHS, Jon Laing, a Web designer from Pennsport, threw his energies into the Occupy Philly protests down on Dilworth Plaza.

Laing, 23, spent long hours at the encampment helping with media and marching throughout the city, even in a driving snowstorm that kept away the target of that day's protest, Bill Clinton.

But none of those things may have as much long-term impact as what he did during the first week of the protest in October. That's when Laing took most of his money out of one of America's "too big to fail" megabanks, Wells Fargo - which Laing calls "one of the worst offenders" in the 2008 economic collapse - and opened an account in his neighborhood branch of the Philadelphia Federal Credit Union.

"I've long been disgruntled with the backwards policies of large banks," said Laing, referring to fees for overdrafts and for not keeping a minimum balance. "I decided to move to a more ethical institution, a credit union."

The leaves of the "American Autumn" are on the ground, and the tents are gone from City Hall and other encampments like New York's Zuccotti Park, but this one legacy from the Occupy Wall Street movement continues to gain steam.

More than a month after a so-called Bank Transfer Day - which started on Facebook in the wake of anger at a proposed new debit-card fee at Bank of America and which was widely publicized with help from the Occupy movement - everyday Americans are continuing to move their money away from big banks.

Officials representing the credit-union industry say that although the one-day Bank Transfer Day on Nov. 5 was a huge success - with an estimated 40,000 Americans opening $80 million in new accounts - it was also just the beginning.

For example, Warminster-based Freedom Credit Union saw a 36 percent increase in new checking accounts in November, a surge that lasted well beyond the 35 new members it attracted the Saturday of Bank Transfer Day.

"That was probably the best publicity we ever got," agreed Bruce Foulke, president and chief executive of American Heritage Federal Credit Union, who said that over the course of 2011, membership in that $1.2 billion member-owned financial cooperative has risen about 20 percent.

Indeed, credit unions - cooperative institutions that historically were limited to a specific pool of workers but are increasingly open to the broader public - must feel this Christmas like they're playing the role of George Bailey, the benevolent lender in "It's a Wonderful Life," profiting from the exposed greed of the evil Henry Potters of the world.

This week, American Heritage's Foulke toured the branches to hand out Christmas bonuses to employees, and he said he was accosted by several happy new members. In Hunting Park, he said, a woman told him: "I just had to get out [of my old bank]. You people are so nice. It's like walking into a family-owned business!"

But "It's a Wonderful Life" was only a movie, and Jimmy Stewart was an actor. In the real world, the new push for consumers to move their money from profit-driven banking behemoths to nonprofit credit unions - as well as smaller community banks - remains an ongoing test over whether customer direct action is a real vehicle for social change.

Some critics of Bank Transfer Day and the larger money-moving crusade have noted that the complexities of modern finance have created the bizarre irony that big banks like Wells Fargo or Bank of America might actually be happy to see a relatively small customer like Jon Laing take a hike.

Why? In freshman economics, it's taught that banks make money by attracting as many deposits as they can, then lending that money out at higher interest rates. But after the fiscal crisis of 2008, bank loans have dried up - 100 economists will give you 100 reasons why - so banks many not want to pay you interest on your savings account when they can't lend the money.

"Since it costs banks money to hold deposits - even if they don't pay you interest, there are FDIC fees and other overhead costs - the inability to make new loans chews into profits," said the popular financial website the Motley Fool. It reasoned that Bank Transfer Day could have had the odd effect of helping banks at the same time it aided consumers who'll likely see lower fees at credit unions.

Kristen Christian, the Los Angeles art-gallery owner who started Bank Transfer Day on Facebook to protest Bank of America, wasn't involved in the Occupy movement, although ironically she opted to hold it on Guy Fawkes Day, honoring the 17th-century British radical whose likeness mask is a mainstay at modern protests.

For the Occupy Wall Street movement, which has been at a crossroads since most of its original encampments were shut down by police raids, the campaign against big banks is also a possible template for new ways in which the movement can make an impact into 2012 and beyond.

"I think we're going to be seeing a profusion of tactics," said Todd Gitlin, a Columbia University journalism professor who was a leading student protester in the 1960s and is writing a book about Occupy Wall Street. He said the ongoing money transfers are an example of "something we don't even know about because it's not very photogenic."

Officials with the credit-union industry say that although the involvement of Occupy Wall Street and the publicity that came from that have helped in the surge of new members, the tipping point was probably when Bank of America proposed a $5 monthly fee on debit cards.

It was that move - which the North Carolina-based megabank rescinded after a public outcry - that seemed to crystalize the three years in which struggling middle-class Americans watched big banks get bailed out then continue to pay massive CEO salaries and bonuses as if the 2008 fiasco had never happened.

"We saw more interest in the places where Bank of America is most active," said Diane Powell of Pennsylvania Credit Union Association, who said the biggest surge of new members during November was in the Philadelphia region.

On the Nov. 5 transfer day, credit unions in the Keystone State gained 1,540 new accounts and $3.1 million in new deposits.

What's impressive about numbers like that is that many angry bank customers and Occupy protesters learned that closing a longstanding account isn't so easy to do in the age of direct deposit. Many switchers, such as Philadelphia's Laing, said they opened a new credit-union account but still waited weeks for checks to clear before they could terminate their old account at the bank.

The surge in new interest has left credit unions - which don't have nearly the advertising budgets of large banks - scrambling for ways to capitalize. One of the most clever is at the local Freedom Credit Union, which is offering new users a chance to make $5 a month for the next year for every month they use their debit card - the exact reverse of the failed Bank of America gambit.

Still, credit-union leaders hope any momentum from Bank Transfer Day and Occupy isn't driven by new gimmicks but old-fashioned values. Foulke, who personally answers members' emails, described it as "that old-fashioned feeling where you walk in the branch and people still greet you."

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