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There's a good debate raging these days on what are being called "criminal" overdraft fees charged by banks when customers overdraw their checking accounts.
As loan losses soared over the past two years, banks turned to fee-based income to juice their bottom lines. This year, banks could pull in as much as $38.5 billion in overdraft fees -- more than double the amount collected 10 years ago, and a number that many have run with recently as evidence that banks are a bunch of hungry, soulless, jerks.
Now a slew of politicians are calling for serious overdraft-fee reform. Sen. Chris Dodd, for example, wants banks to get permission from customers before being stuck with an overdraft fee. "People out there are getting whacked. They should have the right to say, Deny me the transaction," Dodd claims.
Fair enough, but …
Well, OK. People are indeed out there "getting whacked" by overdraft fees, some of which can be quite large. Bank of America (NYSE: BAC ) , Wells Fargo (NYSE: WFC ) , Citigroup (NYSE: C ) , and JPMorgan Chase (NYSE: JPM ) can each charge at least $34. Most of these fees can be accumulated several times a day, and many take place whether a customer asks for overdraft protection or not.
But a few points need to be addressed before we completely cast bankers off as gluttonous blood-suckers.
It's true that consumers should have the right to opt out of overdraft protection, as Dodd proposes. But what everyone already does have the right to do is simply not overdraw their account to begin with. It's really simple: Spend within your means, and you have nothing to worry about. These fees come about solely because of actions people choose to take.
And, really, since customers are spending more money than is in their accounts, these aren't "fees" for service. They're punishments for screwing up, just like the fees you expect for not paying your taxes, forgetting to pay your phone bill, or being drunk in public. I'd love to be able to opt out of getting parking tickets when I forget to move my car on street-cleaning days, but someone feels it's necessary to charge me $74 for doing so. That's just how life works.
Furthermore, Dodd would be wise to look into who exactly these people "being whacked" are. A recent survey by the American Bankers Association that many have pointed to shows a full 82% of consumers haven't been charged an overdraft fee in the past 12 months. Of the 18% who have, 64% had more than one overdraft fee charged in the past year. Amazingly, 54% of the group had more than three overdraft fees charged, and 16% had more than six. That isn't banks being greedy; it's customers being irresponsible.
Point being, a very small, isolated group pays the overwhelming majority of overdraft fees. And since so many in this group are repeat offenders, we can only guess that they're actually OK with the fees: When a customer continuously overdraws and gets stuck with fees, they obviously think the overdraft, fees included, is worth their while. Indeed, only 4% of those charged an overdraft fee were upset that the payment was covered. I'm willing to bet that that's among the highest customer satisfaction rates of any bank product out there.
There are such things as good fees
Want to see what really disturbing fees look like? Check out the underwriting fees investment banks like Goldman Sachs (NYSE: GS ) and Morgan Stanley (NYSE: MS ) charge companies in need of capital. Plus, that's a fee that gets passed down to everybody whether we like it or not, as companies pass along their cost of capital to customers.
Most importantly, regulators want banks to stop making risky loans, yet simultaneously rebuild capital levels. Charging fees for service, and penalizing customers who abuse that service, is the most logical and responsible way to do that.
Got your own overdraft charge story? Fee free to share it in the comment section below.
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