Bank Transfer Day: How much impact did it have?

Community banks and credit unions saw big business on Bank Transfer Day, when some customers moved funds out of big financial institutions. But many see the action as largely symbolic.

Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/AP
Hundreds of protesters with OccupyLA, Good JobsLA, other groups and individuals face off with police officers who guard a Bank of America branch at the corner of 1st and Spring Streets as part of Bank Transfer Day in downtown Los Angeles on Saturday.

Bankers at the roughly 15,000 community banks and credit unions across the United States have been spending Monday running the numbers. And this is no routine tally.

That’s because it’s two days after Bank Transfer Day, the Internet-launched call to move money from big, transnational financial institutions down to the neighborhood level. Now, the beneficiaries of this social action are reporting that Saturday was, well, a small-town banker’s dream, with customers jostling for a parking spot and standing in line to open new accounts.

“The branches had a flurry of activity, and we treated it as a celebration of community and a liberation from big-bank neglect,” says Kimberly Kaselionis, CEO of the Bay Area’s Circle Bank.

Circle Bank opened 33 new accounts in its six-branch system (totaling $188,756), plus four new business accounts (totaling $12, 720) through its website.

These numbers might seem low. But consider that in the five weeks leading up to the weekend – ever since the Sept. 29 announcement by Bank of America about a $5 debit-card fee, which has since been rescinded – more than $4.5 billion has shifted from big banks into the nation’s roughly 7,000 credit unions alone, according to the Credit Union National Association (CUNA).

CUNA spokesman Mark Wolff says he expects final numbers by Tuesday afternoon. By some estimates, the 650,000 consumers who had moved their accounts to credit unions by last Thursday could soon climb to 1 million.

Chase refused a request for comment. Bank of America spokeswoman Anne Pace said in an e-mail, “We don’t have anything to share at this point on account closures.”

Circle Bank is one of many small financial institutions that had a banner weekend. Further up the coast in Oregon, community institution Umpqua Bank says that the number of new accounts this five-week period is up 50 percent from a year ago. “This increase is a result of customers searching for localized products, services, and proven community investments,” says Umpqua spokeswoman Jane Taber.

At Tropical Financial Credit Union, one of the largest credit unions in south Florida, the branches were packed, according to a TFCU spokesperson.

Still, given that the money involved so far represents a minuscule fraction of overall banking assets, many financial analysts wonder about the lasting value of Saturday’s social action.

“While it has caught the attention of bank customers nationwide, the impact is expected to be modest,” says George Conboy, president of Brighton Securities, an independently owned, full-service financial firm based in upstate New York. Chase alone has more than 2 million checking accounts, he points out, so even if thousands of various online pledges to move accounts are also fulfilled, “the impact may not be much.”

Other economists share this view. “It’s largely symbolic,” says James Kahn, an economics professor at Yeshiva University in New York.

But others say there is more than just money at stake. “Congratulations to the participants of bank transfer day for demonstrating the importance of free competitive markets,” says Villanova University economics professor Peter Zaleski via e-mail.

Because the banking sector is competitive, he adds, consumers have alternatives when they are unhappy with their banks. “The same is true for grocery stores, restaurants, and even gas stations to name just a few,” he writes. “If these industries had been nationalized, then consumers would have no alternative when they are unhappy with the company they currently use.”

Ms. Kaselionis of Circle Bank says she views this as “the beginning of a return to ‘the way we were,’ as consumers and small to medium business owners seek the support and resources they need to meet their challenges and support their success.”

Another indicator that this is perhaps more than a one-day event: The Occupy Wall Street movement has a new front, dubbed "Dump Your Bank Day," scheduled for Tuesday.

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