PNC vows to keep checking free

By Dow Jones Newswires-Wall Street Journal
Posted March 1 at 5:58 a.m.

PNC Financial Services Group Inc., bucking a trend that is sweeping the banking industry, is vowing to keep its most-basic checking accounts free of fees.

The Pittsburgh-based regional bank on Tuesday is expected to start notifying its five million checking customers of changes to some of its accounts, which won’t include any new fees. But the free checking comes at the price of other perks: Basic accounts will no longer enjoy debit-card rewards, and non-PNC automatic-teller-machine fees will no longer be reimbursed.

PNC, the nation’s sixth-largest bank as measured by assets, with 2,470 branches in 14 states and $183 billion in deposits, is the latest bank to overhaul its checking account ahead of a new federal law that restricts the amount banks can charge merchants for debit-card transactions. PNC has estimated it could lose $800 million a year from the new rule, which is set to kick in this July.

The move by PNC comes as its biggest rivals eliminate the free checking accounts that have been commonplace in banking since the 1990s. Bank of America Corp. and J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. are among the banks that have put free checking on the chopping block and are testing a slew of new accounts around the country.

Many smaller banks and credit unions, which typically offer the lowest-priced accounts, also are considering tacking on fees. TCF Financial Corp., a Wayzata, Minn., bank that paved the way for free checking in 1986 and used “totally free checking” as its slogan, eliminated its free checking account last year.

PNC is hoping to make up some of the debit-card revenue that will be lost by attracting customers from other banks and driving existing customers to fee-based accounts that offer more products and services, such as better rates on loans.

So far, customers have shown relatively little sensitivity to fees. A new retail-banking study from J.D. Power and Associates found that while more customers are shopping around for and switching their banks, fees aren’t the primary drivers of their decisions.

The survey, which is expected to be released Tuesday, found that 8.7 percnet of 4,791 bank customers said they had switched their primary banking institutions in the past year, up from 7.7 percent in 2010. Just 17 percent of the customers, however, cited fees and rates as reasons for the change. That represented a slight increase from the 16% recorded last year.

Consumer behavior could change, since banks have only recently implemented new fees as they scramble to deal with the new debit-card rules enacted as part of the Dodd-Frank financial overhaul last year. The Federal Reserve has proposed capping the amount banks can charge merchants for debit transactions at seven to 12 cents, from an average rate of 44 cents.

The banking industry is fighting the proposal and hopes for a delay or change before it takes effect in July. Bank executives have said the new limits will force them to shift the costs of offering debit-card rewards to customers by adding fees and reducing benefits.

“What we don’t want to do in the short run is to punish our customers for something they didn’t have any control over to start with,” said Joseph Guyaux, who is president of PNC and oversees its retail-banking business.

He estimated about 70% of the bank’s customers have free checking, saying, “going from that to no free checking made no sense for us.”

PNC said, as of September, it will stop offering rewards on debit cards that are tied to its low-end accounts, including the free-checking account. Other banks, including J.P. Morgan and U.S. Bancorp, are also cutting back on debit rewards because the programs are expensive to maintain.

In another cost-saving move, PNC will stop its five-year-old practice of reimbursing those customers who use non-PNC ATMs for the $1 to $2 typically charged. The bank expects fewer than half its customers will see an impact on their debit rewards or automatic-teller-machine fees.

PNC says the account changes, which will take effect later this month and again in September, include lowering minimum-balance requirements on two of its existing fee-based checking accounts in an effort to encourage customers to move their funds into those products that include more features than a bare-bones account.

PNC also is planning to introduce a prepaid, reloadable card for lower-end customers in June. Other banks also are introducing prepaid cards for customers whose checking accounts carry low balances, making them less profitable for the bank.

The bank also has reduced restrictions on its online and mobile bank account to encourage greater use by its mainstream checking-account customers. The product, called Virtual Wallet, previously had been mostly targeted to young adults.

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One comment:

  1. jack (me) March 1 at 9:18 a.m.

    Of course, they pay next to nothing on their CDs, too, so they can afford it.