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The Death of Free Checking

January 2, 2011 Leave a comment

All I wanted for Christmas was for someone to sit down with me and explain how a checking account was profitable.  Well, I didn’t get that present, and I still don’t know.  Now, I don’t really believe that free checking accounts will go away.  But I do believe that banks and credit unions that continue to focus on checking accounts may go the way of the dodo.

Changes in banking laws have done nothing but hurt the profitably of checking accounts.  In the past, fee income and interchange fees drove the focus on this account type. Now, overdraft fees have been drastically reduced.  It also looks like a law will be passed that will limit the amount that can be earned from interchange.  But as they say, trouble comes in threes.  Number three will be mobile payments.

This summer, iPhone 5 will hit the market, and along with it, NFC capable phones.  Although the Android based Nexus S is NFC capable, it’s not currently being used with mobile payments.  Apple will change that.  Even with “antennagate”, Apple has sold close to 6 million iPhone 4s.  A newer phone that fixes the old problems and adds NFC will be big.  The kicker would be offering the iPhone on Verizon’s LTE network.

With all of this pushing down the profitably of checking accounts, why would banks and credit unions continue to focus on them?  I think the industry has it wrong.  Checking accounts are the razors, savings accounts are the blades.  If you look at the history of the industry, savings and loans are how we made money.  Fee income from checking accounts was just the gravy and caused the industry to get lazy.

Once it got to the point that fee income became the focus, the beginning of the end started.  The interesting thing is, customers seem to be most interested in savings and convenience.  According to one poll*, customers that signed up for Bank of America’s “Keep The Change” and Wachovia’s (Wells Fargo) “Way 2 Save” programs did so to build their savings accounts.  Of course, the banks most likely did it to build their interchange fee income, but they also built up their deposit base.

I am definitely in the savings and customer convenience camp.  Apparently, I’m not the only one.  At the end of the day, banking is a service industry.  Focusing on customer needs is what built the industry.  Now, it’s what will save it.

*The people surveyed consisted of me (BofA customer) and a cousin (Wells customer).  See, you can find a statistic for anything

Photo from Ziggy on GoComics.com

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FIs Are About To Be Blindsided…Again

May 13, 2010 5 comments


I’m not sure if you heard, but this little tech company out in California has a couple of neat devices called the iPhone and iPad.  So far, banks and credit unions have been holding back from jumping into the mobile banking space.  But I believe momentum will grow exponentially over the next two years.

The problem is it might just be too late.  One of the main reason FIs haven’t jumped into the mobile space is because there is no clear ROI.  Instead, they mostly hear about the cost savings in other areas like the call center.  No one is charging for mobile banking in the United States.  And until Bank of America, Wells Fargo or Citibank does, I don’t think anyone will.

One idea I have heard floated for income is charging commercial customers.  The reason being companies are typically charged for using cash management services.  Another one is getting transaction income from mobile payments. Make no mistake, mobile is the biggest growth area for financial services.  I believe that within five years, customers will access their account information mostly from a mobile device.  The iPad and other “tablet” computers will only accelerate this growth.

Fiserv’s iPad demo at Finovate Spring 2010 is just a sample of what’s to come.  But what no one is noticing are the companies that are going around banks and credit unions.  Square’s apps for the iPhone and iPad will take away from those lucrative merchant accounts that customers normally get through their FI.

The biggest threat is the new Transaction app that Apple is working on.  Basically, Apple will turn your iPhone into a credit card by using NFC.  So just like PayPal became the standard for online transactions, it looks like Apple could become the standard for mobile transactions.  And if everything is going mobile, where exactly does that leave your FI?