The growing anger directed at U.S. banks (especially the big ones that took federal bailout funds) over recent fee increases coalesced this weekend into a Facebook-driven campaign urging Americans to close their accounts at large banks and move their money to credit unions by Nov. 5.
Though not initiated by the Occupy Wall Street movement in New York and other cities around the country, the effort has been embraced by the protesters, and their “We are the 99%” mantra is all over the “Bank Transfer Day” Facebook page — making this the first specific action by a political movement that has been criticized as unfocused and incoherent.
Bank Transfer Day was started by a 27-year-old Los Angeles art-gallery owner, Kristen Christian. She says she’s not affiliated with the Occupy Wall Street protesters but that many organizers of those demonstrations had reached out to her to express support.
Christian chose Nov. 5 because of its association with 17th century British folk hero Guy Fawkes, who tried to blow up the House of Lords but was captured on that date in 1605. In an interview with the Village Voice, however, Christian and Occupy Wall Street leaders who discussed the effort to get Americans to move their money from large banks to small institutions emphasized that they weren’t trying to create a collapse of the financial system. “I’ve been very careful to state that this is not … anarchy,” Christian told the Voice. “It’s shifting the money to a company people respect the practices of. It’s like, if you don’t like Walmart‘s practices, shopping at a local grocery store instead.”
The real question, of course, is whether enough people will close their accounts to persuade the nation’s largest banks to roll back their fees in order to keep customers. There’s no denying the populist appeal the movement has garnered: as of Sunday afternoon, about 14,000 Facebook users had RSVP’d to the event, and numerous other pages had been set up in support of the concept. But while plenty of people may like the idea of switching banks to avoid extra fees, moving the foundation of their financial life takes not only dedication but also time (a few weeks at minimum) and a fair amount of tedious paperwork.
Even if enough people decide it’s worth the hassle to make a stand, withdrawing their deposits isn’t going to make an impact on the proprietary trading, consulting, securitization and other businesses that big banks have been pursuing over the past decade or so. As Yahoo! Finance writer Dan Gross pointed out in a recent column, it’s largely these risky endeavors that brought the “too big to fail” banks to the economic precipice three years ago. And it’s these kinds of businesses that increasingly pull in the big money — not plain-Jane deposits and lending.
So, will you be switching your banking to a credit union or smaller bank that hasn’t ratcheted up the amount it charges customers to use its money? Will you close your account on Nov. 5 as a symbolic move?