It's been another tumultuous week for Charlotte-based Bank of America. CEO Brian Moynihan went on CNBC to defend a new $5 monthly fee for debit card users that has created quite a bit of heat for the bank.
MOYNIHAN: "I have an inherent duty as the CEO of a publicly-held company to get a return for my shareholders. At the same time I have an inherent duty to do a great job for my customers. So I think that what I focus on is providing great service to those customers and also getting a fair return for my shareholders. And I think that's my job."
MARK: Joining me now to talk about Bank of America's rough week is Julie Rose. Julie, what's the word?
JULIE: Well, I think the bad word for the bank is five. Five dollars is what the bank will soon be charging customers every month they use their debit card. And it's also the dismal price range Bank of America's stock was trading in at the first of this week.
MARK: Bank of America isn't the only company that plans to start charging customers to use debit cards - Sun Trust will also charge $5. Wells Fargo and Chase bank are experimenting in a few states with a $3 fee - but not in the Carolinas at this time. Others may not be charging for debit card use, but they are boosting the monthly fee for checking accounts instead. So why is Bank of America getting so beaten up on this?
JULIE: Well first of all, it's the biggest. Timing is also at play here. Bank of America announced the new fee to coincide with a new law that limits how much banks can charge merchants for accepting debit cards. It's part of the president's financial reform effort and specifically the result of one amendment sponsored by Illinois Senator Dick Durbin. Bank of America says it'll lose out on $2 billion in merchant fees because of that law and the timing made it look like the bank was trying to pass some of the blame off on Congress. What's happened instead, is Congress -and even President Obama - have turned on the bank. Here's the president at his press conference yesterday.
OBAMA: "Basically the argument they've made is 'Well you know what? This hidden fee was prohibited and so we'll find another fee to make up for it.' Now, they have that right, but it's not a good practice." Okay, so there's the president, and Senator Dick Durbin said on the Senate floor this week that Bank of America customers should "get the heck out of the bank."
DURBIN: "It's hard to believe that a bank would impose such a fee on loyal customers who simply are trying to access their own money on deposit at Bank of America - especially when Bank of America for years has been encouraging customers to use debit cards as much as possible."
MARK: It has been a lot of heat for Bank of America. Is there anyway for a customer to avoid this $5 fee?
JULIE: Yes. If you have a Bank of America mortgage or more than $20,000 in your accounts with the bank. You could also just pay cash, because using your debit card at an ATM will not trigger that $5 fee. The other option is to buy stuff with a separate credit card instead. Banks are actually encouraging this right now - boosting the perks and awards they give credit cardholders - because Congress did not cut the swipe fee banks can charge merchants on credit card purchases.
MARK: And while all of this has been going on, Bank of America's website has been down. Do we know what the problem is there?
JULIE: Bank of America always maintained the outage had nothing to do with the $5 fee. Also, that the site wasn't under attack by hackers and the problems had more to do with some new online tools the bank was installing. But for five days Bank of America said - oh it's fixed. And then it wasn't. The site now seems to be running fine, but frankly the problems were just another blow to Bank of America's credibility. That's been obvious both in the backlash this week - and in the bank's stock price.
MARK: Right, so shares were trading as low as $5.13 this week. Today it's up over $6 - but that's still not good compared to other big banks - Citigroup, Chase and Wells are all trading over $25. What's the problem?
JULIE: Analysts I've spoken to say it's a matter of confidence. People are wary that Bank of America can resolve all of its problems. For the last week all the talk has been about the debit fees, but the much, much larger problem for the bank is the toxic mortgages it's sitting on and huge lawsuits tied to those mortgages. Investors are just not feeling confident right now that Bank of America - and CEO Brian Moynihan - can solve the problem. And then there are the larger pressures hurting all companies right now - the uncertainty of European debt and the ongoing economic troubles here at home.
MARK: Is any of Bank of America's problem purely political?
JULIE: I think you could say so. We're already hearing Republican presidential candidates attack the president's financial reform - which has Obama defending it in even more direct terms. Remember on the campaign trail in 2008, President Obama regularly attacked those "Fat cats on Wall Street." If he goes back to those kinds of messages for this coming election, we could have an ironic situation come next September: President Obama will be here in Charlotte - home of Bank of America - accepting the Democratic Party's nomination. And he may even be doing it at Bank of America stadium.
MARK: Well, heads up to the White House PR team, I guess. Thanks Julie.