A Facebook-led protest urged Americans to close their accounts at the nation’s biggest banks this Saturday, telling consumers “move your money” to a local bank or credit union. Just under 86,000 Facebook users had RSVP’ed to “attend” the weekend event. Did it work? It’s probably too soon to tell: trade associations for community banks and credit unions both say they don’t have any data about new account openings over the weekend. Anecdotal reports abound, but they can only provide snapshots of sentiment, not a quantitative assessment of economic impact. Local news outlets around the country offer piecemeal reports of irate customers taking their business away from big banks, sometimes in conjunction with the Occupy Wall Street protests that have moved well beyond lower Manhattan and into cities throughout the U.S. The Philadelphia Inquirer tells the story of a couple inspired by the protests who switched from Bank of America to a community bank, and news channel KGW out of Portland, Ore., also interviews fed-up customers who are moving their money from big banks. The Denver Post says more than 1,000 protesters marched from bank to bank and urged customers there to close their accounts, while the Colorado Independent says local credit unions have acquired $100 million in new deposits within the past month.
“We’ve been so busy I’ve been handling customers that are overflow,” says David Glaser, vice president of the National Capital Bank of Washington, in Washington, D.C. The two-branch bank has one location open on weekends, and Glaser says it added six new customers on Saturday. Ordinarily, he says a Saturday might yield just a single new customer or none at all.
It’s easy to find stories like this, but it’s harder to quantify how much of an impact they’ll have on the too-big-to-fail banks. Estimates about just how many people would need to follow the “move your money” cause vary, but the average American only keeps a few thousand dollars in a checking account, and the biggest banks in the country have more than a trillion dollars in assets apiece.
Saturday was chosen because Nov. 5 is also Guy Fawkes Day in the United Kingdom, named after a 17th-century rebel. As an article in the (generally pro-bank) Wall Street Journal pointed out, some would-be participants might have found this inconvenient because some credit unions aren’t open on Saturdays.
Rusty Cloutier, president and CEO of MidSouth Bank in Lafayette, La., says protesters’ cause might have been hurt by the fact that the day they chose fell on a Saturday, when sporting events and other distractions occupy consumers’ minds. “There was some minor movement on Saturday,” he says, but the impact was minimal. “We have not seen any major swings in big deposits.”
The Journal quoted one credit union manager who said he didn’t plan to make an exception and open last Saturday, but there were other credit unions around the country who felt differently: The Peninsula Press in California wrote about a San Jose credit union, not ordinarily open on weekends, that held business hours on Saturday in anticipation of new customers coming to open accounts.
For the most part, the nation’s biggest banks remained mum, although news blog Firedoglake published what it says is an internal email from a Chase bank branch manager in New York City with the subject line “Chase Apparel and Pride Day in response to ‘Bank Transfer Day.’” It said, in part, “Our branch partners need our awareness & support – let’s help make sure Bank Transfer Day becomes Chase Pride Day!” A Chase spokesman would not comment on whether or not the email was genuine.
In a statement, American Bankers Association spokeswoman Carol Kaplan said, “Customers considering a move to a different institution are encouraged to shop their own bank first: just as cable and phone companies have different plans to choose from, your bank may have a new product that better meets your needs. “
Investing website The Motley Fool even argues that big banks might be better off without the deposits of “unprofitable” customers, citing a Wells Fargo conference call in which executives said that a growth in deposits was partially responsible for the bank’s drop in net interest margin in the most recent quarter.