TIME Banking

IMF Chief Lagarde Under Investigation in France

IMF Director Lagarde Speaks On Aid Package For Ukraine
Christine Lagarde at IMF headquarters in Washington D.C., in April 2014. Allison Shelley—Getty Images

PARIS (AP) — Christine Lagarde, the chief of the International Monetary Fund, was placed under official investigation for negligence in a French corruption probe that dates back to her days as France’s finance minister.

In a statement Wednesday after a fourth round of questioning before magistrates, Lagarde said she would return to her work in Washington later in the day and said the decision was “without basis.” She is the third IMF managing director in a decade to face legal troubles.

She and her former chief of staff face questions about their role in a 400 million-euro ($531 million) payment to a businessman.

“After three years of proceedings, dozens of hours of questioning, the court found from the evidence that I committed no offense, and the only allegation is that I was not sufficiently vigilant,” she said in her statement.

Under French law, the official investigation is equivalent to preliminary charges, meaning there is reason to suspect an infraction. Investigating judges can later drop a case or issue formal charges and send it to trial.

The payment in question was made to Bernard Tapie in arbitration over a dispute with state-owned bank Credit Lyonnais over the botched sale of sportswear company Adidas. Critics have said the deal was too generous, and was symptomatic of the cozy relationship between money and political power in France.

The court investigating the Tapie payment has been set up specifically for allegations of wrongdoing committed in office. Lagarde’s former chief of staff — now head of the French telecom giant Orange — and Tapie both are under formal investigation for fraud.

Lagarde became French finance minister in 2007, the first woman to hold the post in a G-7 country.

Her predecessor at the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, quit after he was charged with attempted rape in the United States. The New York charges were later dropped. Strauss-Kahn is charged with aggravated pimping in a separate case in France.

A previous IMF chief, Rodrigo Rato, faced allegations of fraud in Spain after the bank he led as chairman collapsed. The collapse of Bankia came well after Rato’s tenure in the Washington-based IMF ended in 2007.

TIME Economy

Banking Is for the 1%

Can’t get credit? You aren’t the only one. Why banks want to do business mainly with the rich

The rich are different, as F. Scott Fitzgerald famously wrote, and so are their banking services. While most of us struggle to keep our balances high enough to avoid a slew of extra fees for everything from writing checks to making ATM withdrawals, wealthy individuals enjoy the special extras provided by banks, which increasingly seem more like high-end concierges than financial institutions. If you are rich, your bank will happily arrange everything from Broadway tickets to spa trips.

Oh, and you’ll have an easier time getting a loan too. A recent report by the Goldman Sachs Global Markets Institute, the public-policy unit of the finance giant, found that while the rich have ample access to credit and banking services six years on from the financial crisis, low- and medium-income consumers do not. Instead, they pay more for everything from mortgages to credit cards, and generally, the majority of consumers have worse access to credit than they did before the crisis. As the Goldman report puts it, “For a near-minimum-wage worker who has maintained some access to bank credit (and it is important to note that many have not in the wake of the financial crisis), the added annual interest expenses associated with a typical level of debt would be roughly equivalent to one week’s wages.” Small and midsize businesses, meanwhile, have seen interest rates on their loans go up 1.75% relative to those for larger companies. This is a major problem because it dampens economic growth and slows job creation.

It’s Ironic (and admirable) that the report comes from Goldman Sachs, which like several other big banks–Morgan Stanley, UBS–is putting its future bets on wealth-management services catering to rich individuals rather than the masses. Banks would say this is because the cost of doing business with regular people has grown too high in the wake of Dodd-Frank regulation. It’s true that in one sense, new regulations dictating how much risk banks can take and how much capital they have to maintain make it easier to provide services to the rich. That’s one reason why, for example, the rates on jumbo mortgages–the kind the wealthy take out to buy expensive homes–have fallen relative to those of 30-year loans, which typically cater to the middle class. It also explains why access to credit cards is constrained for lower-income people compared with those higher up the economic ladder.

Regulation isn’t entirely to blame. For starters, banks are increasingly looking to wealthy individuals to make up for the profits they aren’t making by trading. Even without Dodd-Frank, it would have been difficult for banks to maintain their precrisis trading revenue in a market with the lowest volatility levels in decades. (Huge market shifts mean huge profits for banks on the right side of a trade.) The market calm is largely due to the Federal Reserve Bank’s unprecedented $4 trillion money dump, which is itself an effort to prop up an anemic recovery.

All of this leads to a self-perpetuating vicious cycle: the lack of access to banking services, loans and capital fuels America’s growing wealth divide, which is particularly stark when it comes to race. A May study by the Center for Global Policy Solutions, a Washington-based consultancy, and Duke University found that the median amount of liquid wealth (assets that can easily be turned into cash) held by African-American households was $200. For Latino households it was $340. The median for white households was $23,000. One reason for the difference is that a disproportionate number of minorities (along with women and younger workers of all races) have no access to formal retirement-savings plans. No surprise that asset management, the fastest-growing area of finance, is yet another area in which big banks focus mainly on serving the rich.

In lieu of forcing banks to lend to lower-income groups, something that’s being tried with mixed results in the U.K., what to do? Smarter housing policy would be a good place to start. The majority of Americans still keep most of their wealth in their homes. But so far, investors and rich buyers who can largely pay in cash have led the housing recovery. That’s partly why home sales are up but mortgage applications are down. Policymakers and banks need to rethink who is a “good” borrower. One 10-year study by the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, for example, found that poor buyers putting less than 5% down can be better-than-average credit risks if vetted by metrics aside from how much cash they have on hand. If banks won’t take the risk of lending to them, they may eventually find their own growth prospects in peril. After all, in a $17 trillion economy, catering to the 1% can take you only so far.

MONEY Banking

Why This Bank Bought Its Customers Pizza

Pizza
Jeffrey Coolidge—Getty Images

When Simple, an online bank, experienced an outage last week, the company made it up to customers by giving them dinner and $50 cash.

If you’re like most people, you probably haven’t heard of Simple, the banking startup (recently acquired by BBVA) that promises to bring banking to the mobile world. Simple works like a conventional bank, except the high-tech operation is only accessible through the web. That means if its online services stop working, Simple effectively ceases to exist.

That was a problem last Wednesday, when a transition to a new in-house payment processor went awry for about 10% of users, or roughly 12,000 of the company’s 120,000 customers. The outage lasted all day, and issues still persist for some, prompting a deluge of complaints. Anger at service disruptions is common, especially in banking, but Simple’s response might be unique: The company bought pizza dinner for a number of its users and appears to have given $50 to all those affected by the outage.

“I am deeply sorry,” wrote Simple CEO and co-founder Joshua Reich in a post on the company’s blog. “We let you down. We’re doing everything we can to help make things right.” While Reich doesn’t mention any details on exactly how the bank is making it up to customers, many Simple users took to Twitter, lauding Simple for its surprisingly generous efforts.

At least a few customers who could not access their funds received a free meal, courtesy of the bank. Another user posted an email from Simple on Twitter announcing his account had been credited with $50 as an apology for the downtime. Simple spokesperson Krista Berlincourt said she could not speak to any specific compensation offered to customers, but did stipulate that customer support agents “are empowered to do whatever it means for them to do right by the customer.”

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 1.03.01 PM

Berlincourt also confirmed that a subset of customers “who were affected longer than they should have been” received monetary compensation, but declined to specify how many accounts were credited or how much money Simple distributed. The Oregonian, working off Simple’s statement that fewer than 90% of customers were affected, estimates the company gave away about $600,000—not including what it spent on pizza.

Screen Shot 2014-08-14 at 1.04.50 PM

Simple could not immediately provide statistics on its general reliability, but Berlincourt said this is the first outage she knows of that wasn’t the fault of a third-party payment processor. Ironically, Simple says Wednesday’s issues derived from its attempt to switch to its own payment processor, a move intended to improve the service’s reliability and performance.

Now that this transition is completed, the CEO’s statement noted, another outage of this caliber is highly unlikely. “This project isn’t one we ever repeat,” Berlincourt said. “When you build a foundation for your home, once it’s built, it’s there.” And if anything does go wrong again, customers can at least look forward to another free dinner.

MONEY Banking

2 Reasons to Chill Out About Huge Bank Profits—And 1 Reason to Get Angry

JP Morgan Chase, New York, NY
Mike Segar—Reuters

Little more than five years after the darkest point of the Great Recession, banks are again making record profits. Has the world no justice?

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that banks earned more than $40.24 billion in the second quarter, the industry’s second highest quarterly profit in roughly a generation, just behind the $40.36 billion banks earned in early 2013. That may be infuriating to millions of Americans who lost their jobs and maybe even their homes in a recession due in no small part to Wall Street missteps, if not outright malfeasance.

But there are some reasons to take big bank profits in stride…even if they remain a long-term concern.

Other industries are also raking it in.

Record bank profits are making headlines. But that’s because Americans have developed such a disdain for bankers, not because bank profits are particularly extraordinary. In fact, corporate profits, which hit a record $1.7 trillion last year, are higher across the board.

Banks have certainly enjoyed their share of the pie. According to S&P Dow Jones Indices, financial services companies grabbed about 20.3% of all the profits posted by companies in the S&P 500 last quarter. At first blush a fifth of earnings may seem high. Indeed, financial services firms are the most profitable industry that S&P tracks, slightly ahead of technology, which contributes about 17.5% of S&P 500 profits. And unlike tech whizzes whose gadgets improve our lives, bankers don’t “make” anything.

But in the years leading up to the financial crisis, financial services accounted for a much bigger share of profits–at times more than 30%. In fact, today’s level is essentially in line with banks’ 20-year average of 20.2% of profits.

They’re making money on lending, not trading.

The other reason to feel relatively good about rising bank profits has to do with how banks are making that money. Monday’s Journal story emphasized that the jump in bank profits was tied to increased lending levels; commercial lending rose at an annualized 13% rate, while consumer lending climbed 6%.

That’s good news because lending is what we – even those among us who resent bankers – want banks to do. Lending helps businesses grow and helps consumers buy stuff, both of which ultimately help the overall economy. In fact the anti-banking crowd has been complaining that banks haven’t been doing enough lending. So they should take heart that that’s starting to change, even if it means banks are earning enviable profits in the process.

At the same time, the growth in lending contrasts with a still-tepid climate for another traditional profit line: trading. Placing bets–often with borrowed money–on different corners of the stock and bond markets was a huge profit engine for banks in the days before the financial crisis. But it made them riskier, and arguably had much less value for society than lending money directly to businesses. While the second quarter may have been good to banks overall, trading revenue at Wall Street’s biggest firms—Goldman Sachs Group Inc. THE GOLDMAN SACHS GROUP INC. GS 0.3685% , JPMorgan Chase & Co. JPMORGAN CHASE & CO. JPM 0.3701% , and Citigroup Inc. CITIGROUP INC. C 0.6002% —fell 14%, according to Bloomberg, which called the result “the worst start to a year since the 2008 financial crisis.”

The trend has a lot to do with calm stock and bond markets. But don’t count out the effect of new regulations like the Volcker rule.

But lessons have not been learned.

Of course, even with some big caveats it can still seem pretty galling that an industry that received billions in government bailouts less than a decade ago is so wildly profitable, if not quite as wildly profitable as it once was. You may be even more irritated when you consider that banks achieved these profits despite paying more than $60 billion in settlements and penalties since the 2008, which suggests they ought to have been asked to pay even more for their contribution to the crisis. And that Wall Street pay has bounced back almost as quickly as profits.

Then there’s the disturbing fact that the “living wills” submitted by the country’s largest banks—blueprints for safely winding down their activities in the event of another financial crisis—were just last week deemed inadequate by the Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. In other words, the banks are still “too big to fail,” so taxpayers could again be left holding the bag if the animal spirits get out of control again—and record profits have a tendency to make that happen.

Ultimately, the return to business as usual may, as Fortune recently suggested, give more ammunition to those in Washington who are still calling for stricter banking rules. But given the strength of the business lobby in Washington, don’t expect any miracles.

 

 

 

MONEY Banking

Get Paid Before Payday Without Any Fees, New App Promises

ActiveHours app screenshot

A payday loan alternative called Activehours promises employees that they can get paid immediately for the hours they've worked, without having to wait for a paycheck—and with no fees.

Payday lenders are often compared to loansharking operations. Critics say such lenders prey on people so desperately in need of quick cash that they unwittingly sign up for loans that wind up costing them absurdly high interest rates. According to Pew Charitable Trusts research from 2012, the typical payday loan borrower takes out eight short-term loans annually, with an average loan amount of $375 each, and over the course of a year pays $520 in interest.

These short-term loans are marketed as a means to hold one over until payday, but what happens too often is that the borrower is unable to pay back the loan in full when a paycheck arrives. The borrower then rolls over the original payday loan into a new one, complete with new fees, and each subsequent loan is even more difficult to pay off.

You can see how quickly and easily the debt can snowball. And you can see why payday loans are demonized—and mocked, as John Oliver just did hilariously on “Last Week Tonight”:

You can also see why many people would be interested in an alternative that isn’t as much of a rip-off. Payday loan alternatives have popped up occasionally, with better terms than the typical check-cashing operation. Now, Activehours, a startup in Palo Alto that just received $4.1 million in seed funding, is taking quite a different approach: Instead of offering a short-term loan, the app allows hourly employees to get paid right away for the hours they’ve already worked, regardless of the usual paycheck cycle.

What’s more (and this is what really seems like the crazy part), Activehours charges no fees whatsoever. In lieu of fees, Activehours asks users to give a 100% voluntary tip of some sort as thanks for the service.

There may be more than one reason you’re now thinking, “Huh?” On its FAQ page, Activehours explains that the service is available to anyone who gets paid hourly via direct deposit at a bank and keeps track of hours with an online timesheet. Once you’re signed up, you can elect to get paid for some or all of the hours you’ve worked (minus taxes and deductions) as soon as you’ve worked them. In other words, if you want to get paid for the hours you worked on, say, Monday, there’s no need to wait for your paycheck on Friday. As soon as your Monday workday is over, you can log in to Activehours, request payment, and you’ll get paid electronically by the next morning. When official payday rolls around, Activehours withdraws the amount they’re fronted from the user’s account.

As for voluntary tips instead of service or loan fees, Activehours claims the policy is based on something of a philosophical stance: “We don’t think people should be forced to pay for services they don’t love, so we ask you to pay what you think is fair based on your personal experience.” Activehours swears that the no-fee model is no gimmick. “Some people look at the model and think we’re crazy,” Activehours founder Ram Palaniappan told Wired, “but we tested it and found the model is sufficient to building a sustainable business.”

“People aren’t used to the model, so they think it’s too good to be true,” Palaniappan also said. “They’re judging us with a standard that’s completely terrible. What we’re doing is not too good to be true. It’s what we’ve been living with that’s too bad to be allowed.”

Yet Activehours’ curiously warm and neighborly, no-fee business model is actually one of reasons consumer advocates caution against using the service. “At first glance, this looks like a low-cost alternative to other emergency fixes such as payday loans,” Gail Cunningham of the National Foundation for Credit Counseling said via email in response to our inquiry about Activehours. “However, a person who is so grateful, so relieved to have the $100 runs the risk of becoming a big tipper, not realizing that their way of saying thanks just cost them a very high APR on an annualized basis. A $10 tip on a $100 loan for two weeks is 260% APR – ouch!”

Consumer watchdog groups also don’t endorse Activehours because it’s a bad idea for anyone to grow accustomed to relying on such a service, rather than traditional savings—and an emergency stash of cash to boot. Access your money early with the service, and you’re apt to be out of money when bills come due, Tom Feltner, director of financial services for the Consumer Federation of America, warned. “If there isn’t enough paycheck at the end of the week this week, then that may be a sign of longer-term financial imbalance,” he explained.

“Everyone thinks they’ll use the service ‘just this once,’ yet it becomes such an easy fix that they end up addicted to the easy money,” said Cunningham. “A much better answer is to probe to find the underlying financial problem and put a permanent solution in place. I would say that if a person has had to use non-traditional service more than three times in a 12-month period, it’s time to stop kicking the can down the road and meet with a financial counselor to resolve the cash-flow issue.”

The other aspect of Activehours that could be a deal breaker for some is the requirement of a bank account and direct deposit: Many of the workers who are most likely to find payday loans appealing are those without bank accounts.

Still, for those who are eligible and find themselves in a jam, Activehours could be a more sensible move once in a blue moon, at least when compared to feeling forced to turn to a high-fee payday loan outfit over and over.

MORE: I am unable to pay my debts. What can I do?

MORE: How can I make it easier to save?

TIME Banks

U.S. Regulators: Wall Street’s Largest Banks Still Too Big To Fail

Bank Of America Reports Loss Due 6 Billion Dollar Legal Charge
Spencer Platt—Getty Images

The biggest banks still don't have adequate bankruptcy plans to avoid precipitating another economic crisis, said U.S. regulators

Eleven of the nation’s largest banks still do not have viable bankruptcy plans that would avoid causing widespread economic damage, U.S. regulators said Tuesday in a sweeping admonition of Wall Street’s giants.

The Federal Reserve and the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp said that the bankruptcy plans submitted by the 11 biggest banks in the United States fail to prepare for an orderly failure, have “unrealistic or inadequately supported” assumptions and do not properly outline changes in firm structure that would prevent broader economic repercussions.

“…[T]he plans provide no credible or clear path through bankruptcy that doesn’t require unrealistic assumptions and direct or indirect public support,” said Thomas Hoenig, the second-in-command official at the FDIC, in a statement.

Banks are required to submit an annual “living will” under the 2010 Dodd-Frank law, a legacy of the financial crisis of 2007-2008, in which the bankruptcy of Lehman Brothers was a precipitating factor in the economic crash that led to the Great Recession.

Regulators called for banks to create “living wills” to plan for a bankruptcy process that would not require the billions of dollars in taxpayer money doled out during the financial crisis, when many of Wall Street’s biggest financial institutions had to borrow billions from the Treasury to avoid disastrous collapse.

With Tuesday’s announcement, the large banks face the threat of tougher capital rules and restrictions on growth if they do not address the issues by July 2015.

“Too big to fail is alive and well. The FDIC’s statement that these living wills are not credible means that megabanks will live on taxpayer life support in the event of a crash,” said Sen. Sherrod Brown (D., Ohio), a proponent of legislation to increase capital requirements for the biggest banks, the Wall Street Journal reports.

Tuesday’s findings apply to banks with assets greater than $250 billion in assets, including Bank of America, Citigroup, Goldman Sachs, J.P. Morgan Chase, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, Credit Suisse, Barclays and others.

MONEY Banking

Stuck Paying Overdraft Fees? One Simple Rule to Not Be a Sucker

Hand holding large lollipop
Yulia M.—Getty Images/Flickr

A tiny portion of bank customers pays nearly three-quarters of all overdraft fees, to the tune of $380.40 annually per account—and some $31 billion total.

Before getting into the nitty-gritty of a new government report about overdraft fees, and before reviewing the recent history and some of the staggering statistics regarding these much-maligned bank fees, let’s cut to the chase and give some straightforward advice:

DON’T OPT IN to overdraft protection.

You may have done so after thinking that “protection” sounds like it’s good for you. Heck, you may have no idea that you’re actually signed up for such a service. (An overdraft, by the way, is when you pay for something with a check or debit card and don’t have enough money in your account to cover the tab, prompting a bank fee to kick in, likely in the neighborhood of $35. When you don’t have overdraft protection and don’t have a sufficient account balance to cover a purchase, your card will be declined, and there will be no fee assessed.) If you’re not sure, check with your bank to check your status. And whether you’ve opted in consciously or unwittingly, give serious thought to opting out. Like, now.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way, let’s run through how we got to where we are today, and why even as reforms have helped consumers save money, they come up way short compared to how consumers can help themselves.

The total amount and frequency of customers paying overdrafts have been declining. American customers collectively paid a whopping $37 billion in 2009 in overdrafts, one of the more outrageous factoids helping to bring about the creation of the CFPB (Consumer Financial Protection Bureau), as well as the Occupy Wall Street protests. After rules were put in place requiring bank customers to opt in to overdraft protection, rather than be signed up automatically for it, the total shrunk to $31.6 billion in 2011, and remains at around $31 billion annually.

On the one hand, consumers are paying $6 billion less in overdraft fees compared to five years ago. On the other, we’re still paying $31 BILLION each year on a fee that bank reforms were supposed to rein in. Why is the figure still so high?

A study released last week from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau provides some answers. The vast majority of bank customers actually pay no overdraft fees whatsoever. Seven out of ten accounts incur zero overdrafts annually, and 82% of customer accounts are hit with three or fewer overdrafts per year.

Therefore, it’s a very small portion of customers who are paying the lion’s share of overdraft fees. According to the CFPB, 8.3% of bank customers overdraft more than 10 times annually, and they’re collectively responsible for a mind-boggling 73.7% of overdraft fees collected by banks. Who are these people, who pay on average $380.40 in overdraft fees? The data in the report reveals a profile of the prototypical frequent overdrafter:

They’re young and inexperienced. Nearly 11% of customers ages 18 to 25 have 10+ overdrafts annually, compared to less than 3% of those age 62+.

They make small, frequent purchases with debit cards. Consumers who use their debit cards more than 30 times per month were more likely to be frequent overdrafters, with 18% incurring 10+ overdrafts per year. And the purchases that sent them into a negative balance tended to be small, with a median amount of just $24.

They pay back the money soon. More than half of accounts are back in a positive balance within three days, and three-quarters are positive within a week of overdraft. This tells us that an overdraft is often a matter of sloppiness—absentmindedly paying for a small purchase without realizing the money wasn’t there to cover the bill, then quickly making a deposit or transferring money from another account to get out of a negative balance. By then, however, the customer has already been hit with a fee (one likely higher than the median $24 mentioned above), and paid back a loan that equates to an annual rate of 17,000%, as the CFPB put it.

They’ve opted in. Well, duh. A little over 14% of bank customers have opted in to overdraft protection, and unsurprisingly, they tend to get hit with more overdraft fees. (In unusual circumstances, overdraft fees can be assessed even if you haven’t opted in.) The average checking account that has opted in is hit with $21.61 in overdraft fees monthly, compared to $2.98 for those who haven’t opted in. What’s more, those who opt in tend to pay more in other kinds of bank fees too, including maintenance and ATM fees.

If the portrait above sounds like you, the obvious advice is that it’s high time to start paying more attention to where you bank, how you spend, and whether or not you’ve opted in to overdraft protection. If you have, OPT OUT.

MORE:

TIME Banking

How Big Banks Are Finally Getting It Right

It was known as the $39 cup of coffee: Swipe your debit card to pay for your latte and drop your bank account balance into the red, triggering an overdraft fee in the process. Now, that exercise in frustration might finally be getting a rest: New data shows that more Americans will be able to dodge that $35 bullet, especially if they have an account at a big bank.

Overdraft fees were the bane of customers’ existence, but are a revenue lifeline for banks and credit unions, especially after regulatory credit card crackdowns limited how much they could earn from those. They earned around $32 billion last year off our careless swiping — and that was three years after federal reforms that prohibited financial institutions from automatically subjecting people to the fees kicked in — so these fees seemed destined to stick around, no matter how much we hated them.

New research from financial research company Moebs $ervices finds that something interesting is happening, though: Overdraft fees are there, but increasingly, banks and credit unions are waiving them if the customer just drops into the red by a small amount — say a cup or two of coffee.

We seem to be at a tipping point: Just over half of financial institutions with more than $50 billion in assets waive overdraft fees for small-dollar transactions, with an average cutoff amount of a little over five bucks.

Across all financial institutions, Moebs finds that just over one in four have a small-dollar overdraft waiver in place, with an average cutoff amount of $7.40, although cutoffs range from a single dollar all the way up to $50.

Smaller banks and credit unions are least likely to extend these waivers for low-amount overdrafts: Only about 15% of institutions with $100 million or less in assets offer them, and just under 11% of credit unions.

CEO and economist of Moebs $ervices Mike Moebs says that although smaller institutions might not have these policies on paper, it’s likely that they might extend waivers when customers call and ask.

Aside from the threat of further regulation, Moebs says bank technology has improved so institutions can get more detailed with their parameters. He says consumers have been demanding more customer-friendly features (and regulators have been listening to their complaints).

The dearth of paper checks helps, too, he says. “[The] lack of float due to only about 10% of payment system is paper checks is another factor.” With money moving from one place to another pretty much in real time, it’s easier for banks to be a little more flexible.

There are some distinct regional differences in Moebs’ data. Kentucky and New Hampshire residents have better than a 50% shot of getting their small-dollar overdrafts waived, versus fewer than a 20% chance in Florida, Maryland, Nevada and Wisconsin. There’s a similar split among metro areas, ranging from zero in Denver to 44% in San Antonio. (The overall averages are higher because banks in rural areas are more likely to offer waivers than those in urban or suburban settings.)

Here, Moebs says local competition is a contributing factor. If one bank offers a waiver, especially one with a higher amount, its competitors will feel pressure to follow suit.

MONEY Advertising

Best ATM Ever Gives Away Free Trips to Disney, Flights to Caribbean

screenshot from TD advertisement

This viral "Automated Thanking Machine" video will warm your heart, despite the unlikelihood of any bank ever being this nice to you.

Visit the typical ATM and all you come away with is some of your own money, and perhaps a bitter taste in your mouth after coughing up a $3 fee.

Some very special ATMs set up by TD Canada, however, have been giving customers a whole lot more—like the opportunity to toss out the opening pitch in a Major League Baseball game, and a free trip to Disneyland for a single mom and her kids.

In this highly unusual case, the ATM acronym stands for “Automated Thanking Machine,” and TD Canada secretly recorded a bunch of customers on video while they’re receiving their very special gifts. It was edited and put into a YouTube ad that was posted last week and has generated more than 3 million page views.

It may seem like there are some privacy concerns. The bank bizarrely knows all sorts of intimate details about these customers’ private lives. For instance, it’s no coincidence that the guy who gets to throw out the opening pitch to Jose Bautista at a Toronto Blue Jays game just so happens to be a huge Blue Jays fan.

The robot-like voice emanating from the machine also gets into a deep conversation about how one elderly woman has a daughter in Trinidad who is stricken with cancer. Creepy, right? But when that voice announces that the bank is giving the woman a free flight to see her daughter, the heartwarming, tear-inducing scene that results apparently is enough to cast aside any qualms about invasion of privacy.

It turns out that the banks gathered information about these customers the old-fashioned way–with local staffers asking about their lives–rather than sneakily via reviewing Facebook accounts or scanning customer purchase histories. Most banks and companies use our personal information to try to sell us more stuff, but in this instance it was used to pick out the perfect, incredibly thoughtful gift. See for yourself.

MONEY Banking

Why People Mistrust Financial Advisers

Untrustworthy businessman crossing fingers behind back
RubberBall Productions—Getty Images/Vetta

A financial planner says people can be cynical about her work. Her own experience as a bank customer helps explain why.

Very often, we financial planners convey the impression that getting your financial life into shape is easy. And that we’re in control of our finances.

If we had a bit of humility, we’d admit that we share the same frustrations as our clients.

Like dealing with low interest rates on checking accounts in combination with high banking fees.

“You get interest on this account,” the customer service representative from my bank said. This was about a month ago. I had called the bank upon receiving my monthly statement.

“Yes,” I replied. “I got a penny last month. A penny. And now you want to charge me $25 a month to have a checking account?”

She had to laugh.

I was calling to ask why a $25 charge had shown up on my formerly free checking account.

She asked if anything had changed. It had. I had paid off all my big debts. I was in much better financial shape.

Well, that explained it.

Now that I had repaid my loans to the bank, apparently my relationship with it wasn’t sufficient to earn me free checking. I was no longer paying the bank large amounts of interest, so it would start charging me this monthly fee. That is the way it works.

If this makes sense to you, you must be a banker.

Okay, that was a low blow. But for me, it’s an example of why so many clients have a bad attitude toward financial services institutions and professionals.

It’s not just the malcontents, it’s everyone. The surveys confirm that the public does not hold financial services institutions in high regard.

Many of my clients been burned before. And they’re probably still getting burned by such ridiculous tactics as fee-ing the customer to death or the inability to get a new mortgage or a small business loan without a dossier three feet thick that proves you do actually pay your bills.

I told the woman on the phone, “I just opened two checking accounts at another bank for my twin daughters. The other bank is going to charge $12 a month for each account. And as soon as my girls go show their college IDs, the accounts will be free. So tell me why I should pay you $25.”

I spoke politely, without a trace of anger.

Eventually, the customer service representative found a way to give me some credit for direct deposit of my paycheck. And she switched me to an account that will ding me only $7 a month.

Of course, if the bank had wanted to provide the best deal for a longtime customer, they could have recognized this direct deposit before. But they hadn’t. They had just slapped a fee three times larger than on my new account, perhaps hoping I wouldn’t find out how I could save some money.

Cynicism? Anger? The emotions that I feel are the same ones that people have when they approach me as a professional. As a certified financial planner I have much larger ideas that I need to convey to our customers and the general public than “I won’t cheat you or slip in something that benefits me and not you.”

But it’s tough to get through all that dreck first and get on to the important ideas.

I told the customer service representative that I didn’t mind giving up the penny in exchange for a lower monthly fee.

When I told this anecdote to one of my partners, he just had to raise the ante. “Last month, I got three pennies,” he said.

Another happy financial services customer.

———-

Harriet J. Brackey, CFP, is the co-chief investment officer of KR Financial Services, a South Florida registered investment advisory firm that manages more than $330 million. She does financial planning for clients and manages their portfolios. Before going into the financial services industry, she was an award-winning journalist who covered Wall Street. Her background includes stints at Business Week, USA Today, The Miami Herald and Nightly Business Report.

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