March 1, 2012 at 10:17 AM ET
By msnbc.com staff
Bank of America is planning to make changes to its basic checking accounts that would introduce a monthly fee for customers unless they agree to bank online, buy more products or maintain certain balances, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.
The plan is the latest sign of the challenges the banking industry faces as it grapples with low interest rates, slow economic growth and new rules limiting many types of service charges, the Journal said. At Bank of America, for example, 2011 revenue declined by $26.2 billion, or 22 percent, from its 2009 level.
Other big retail banks are rolling out similar plans to raise their fee revenue, including J.P. Morgan Chase and Wells Fargo, the Journal said.
These banks are walking a fine line by raising fees, the report said, as they risk alienating their best customers and drawing fire from politicians. A wave of criticism from customers led Bank of America to cancel plans to institute a $5 debit card charge last fall.
Bank of America pilot programs in Arizona, Georgia and Massachusetts are experimenting with charging $6 to $9 a month for what’s called an “Essentials” account. Other account options being tested in those states carry monthly charges of $9, $12, $15 and $25, but give customers opportunities to avoid the payments by maintaining minimum balances, using a credit card or taking a mortgage with Bank of America, according to an internal memo cited by the Journal.
Checking accounts are often costly for banks because they lose money on them. They’re used to lure younger customers in the hope that they will stay on at a bank and eventually become more affluent and use other services, such as mortgage and business loans and credit cards, the paper said.