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Photographer: Sandy Huffaker/Bloomberg News.

A pedestrian walks by a Payday Advance shop on El Cajon Blvd. in San Diego, California.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. has a simple message for banks about poorer Americans: They could be good customers, and their numbers are growing.

U.S. households without bank accounts grew by 821,000 from 2009 to 2011, pushing the so-called unbanked population to 8.2 percent of the nation’s total, according to the FDIC’s National Survey of Unbanked and Underbanked Households.

The result is that about 17 million adults manage their finances without checking or savings accounts at insured institutions, many of them relying instead on non-banks such as payday lenders and check-cashing stores.

“Insured financial institutions have an important chance to grow their customer base by expanding opportunities that bring unbanked and underbanked individuals into mainstream banking,” Martin J. Gruenberg, the FDIC’s acting chairman, said in an e-mailed statement.

The agency released the report in conjunction with a conference to explore ways banks could profit by serving this population.

The FDIC and consumer advocates have sought to shed light on the unbanked -- those without bank accounts -- and underbanked -- those who rely on alternative services even though they have bank accounts -- as a first step toward promoting use of insured lenders instead of non-bank products, which can have high fees and interest rates.

The study, conducted in 2011, revealed that 1 in 12 U.S. households, are unbanked. That is up 0.6 percentage points from the first study, conducted in 2009.

Underbanked Households

The FDIC’s findings are “an extremely negative development,” National Community Reinvestment Coalition spokesman Eric Hersey said in an e-mail. “We already knew that there has been a constriction in lending; now we know that there has been a serious constriction in basic banking services.”

One in five households, or 20.1 percent, were underbanked in 2011, according to the FDIC report. The agency said it used a different methodology to measure the rate in 2009, when it found 18.2 percent underbanked.

Unbanked households vary significantly by ethnicity, according to the 2011 report. Black households were 21.4 percent unbanked, and Hispanics registered a 20.1 percent rate, while American Indians were at 14.5 percent. White and Asian households were at 4 percent and 2.7 percent, respectively.

The FDIC has increased its focus on the subject of underbanked Americans over the last few years. In 2010, it created a new division of depositor and consumer protection, which works on the issue as well.

Pilot Program

In 2011, the FDIC ran a “Model Safe Accounts” pilot program designed to explore the feasibility of checking and savings accounts designed for underserved populations.

In an April 26 report on the program, the FDIC concluded that the market was ripe for the entry of insured banks. Nine participating banks were able to acquire and retain customers, while keeping their own costs down.

“The results of this one-year pilot suggest that opportunities exist for financial institutions to offer safe, low-cost transaction and savings accounts,” the report states.

Cleveland, Ohio-based KeyCorp (KEY) offers an account aimed in part at the unbanked. Reduced to the bare bones of a checking account -- it has no paper checks -- the new product has been successful, said David Bowen, a director at KeyBank for community bank product management and specialty programs.

“You cannot overdraft the account,” Bowen said at the FDIC conference yesterday. And because you don’t have checks, there’s no way to bounce an item.’’

Low Risk

Without these features, there is a very low risk that the bank would lose money. So, “for all intents and purposes it’s free,” Bowen said.

Mary Monahan, executive vice president and research director at Pleasanton, California-based Javelin Strategy & Research, questioned whether low to medium-income people will ever have the money to establish a long-term link with a bank.

“First and foremost, there’s the issue of money keeping underbanked under-banked,” Monahan wrote in a June 14 blog post. “They just don’t have the funds to maintain an extravagant banking relationship; their income is lower and their budget is tight.”

For some banks, customers with deposits and investments of less than $100,000 may be unappealing. In February, JPMorgan Chase & Co. (JPM), the largest U.S. bank by assets, said about 70 percent of such customers will be unprofitable following regulations that cap lenders’ fees.

At yesterday’s conference Gruenberg questioned the relationship between a person’s income and banking status, noting that 47.6 percent of households with less than $15,000 in annual income were fully banked.

“How is it that they have an account and how do they utilize those accounts?” Gruenberg asked. “How have these households which represent nearly half of that group found a way to a full account relationship?”

To contact the reporter on this story: Carter Dougherty in Washington at cdougherty6@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Maura Reynolds at mreynolds34@bloomberg.net

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