U.S. Bank resists trend, skips fee for debit cards

  • Article by: DAVID PHELPS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: October 19, 2011 - 9:22 PM

Amid record-high profit, official cites what the consumers want. Costly move comes amid record third-quarter profits, official cites consumer.

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U.S. Bancorp said Wednesday it will forgo a monthly fee for its debit card holders, bucking other banks that have already begun imposing the extra charge.

Wall Street analysts called the move a bold statement, especially considering that U.S. Bancorp's major competitors have announced plans to charge $3 to $5 a month to use their debit cards. Bank of America, the nation's largest, will begin assessing a $5 monthly fee next year. JPMorgan Chase & Co. is testing a $3 fee in some markets. Wells Fargo is doing the same, although not in Minnesota.

Since the Federal Reserve capped how much retailers could be charged for each debit card transaction, banks have been scrambling to recoup the millions of dollars in lost revenue. U.S. Bancorp, the nation's fifth-largest bank, appears to be the largest one to declare that it won't turn to a monthly charge for its debit card.

"We try to understand where the consumer's preferences are," chief financial officer Andrew Cecere said, after U.S. Bancorp reported strong third-quarter earnings. "We asked customers before making the decision."

About 30 percent of U.S. consumers said they would change banks over additional debit card fees, according to a survey by the Research Intelligence Group, a Pennsylvania-based consulting firm. About 43 percent said they would switch to paying with cash or credit cards, while 13 percent said they would pay the fee if it was "reasonable."

"This debit card fee just adds insult to injury," said Norma Garcia, an attorney with the Consumers Union, a national consumer watchdog. "It's unfair for the banks to stick consumers with a monthly fee just to use their own money."

U.S. Bancorp's decision "is pretty significant from an operations and a strategy perspective," said Tom Lewandowski, an analyst for Edward Jones & Co. "Why not wait and see how it plays out at the other banks? It also gives USB an opportunity to pick up some deposit share."

Like other large banks, however, U.S. Bancorp is ending its debit card rewards programs as a way to cut costs. The rewards program will end Nov. 1, although customers will have until April 30, 2012, to redeem or transfer their points.

As part of the comprehensive financial reforms passed by Congress, the Fed was instructed to cap the fees large banks and credit unions could charge retailers to process debit card sales. After much debate and lobbying among retailers, banks and consumer groups, the Fed set the cap at 21 cents per debit transaction. The average had been 44 cents.

U.S. Bancorp will lose $1 billion in fee revenue as a result of the new regulations that include limits on overdraft charges, Cecere said. "We know we're not going to make that all up" with new fees, he added.

Rather, U.S. Bancorp hopes to make up the difference, at least in part, through growth. Market share, deposits and new loans are rising while loan delinquencies are returning to prerecession levels. Cecere said the bank continues to see "solid growth" in residential mortgages and commercial loans.

That bright assessment was part of U.S. Bancorp's third-quarter earnings report, which saw a 40 percent year-over-year rise in profits to a record $1.27 billion.

"From our perspective, USB's quarter was very solid considering the environment," said David George of Baird Equity Research. "This was one of the best quarters we've seen so far this earnings season."

Bloomberg News contributed to this report. David Phelps • 612-673-7269

  • DEBIT CARD FEES

    The trend: Bank of America announced plans to charge customers $5 per month to use debit cards, and other banks are expected to follow.

    U.S. Bank, coming off record third-quarter profits, announced Tuesday it will not charge such fees, even if it incurs its predicted $1 billion loss for forgoing the fee.

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