Wells Fargo Ends Free Checking Before New Bank Rules

John Stumpf
John Stumpf, chief executive officer of Wells Fargo & Co., speaks to the media outside the White House. Photographer: Joshua Roberts/Bloomberg

Wells Fargo & Co., the U.S. bank with the largest branch network, eliminated free checking accounts for new customers as firms prepare for stricter consumer-protection measures.

New basic checking accounts carry a $5 monthly fee as of July 1, said Julia Tunis Bernard, a spokeswoman for the San Francisco-based bank. Wells Fargo also established minimum deposit requirements for waiving the fee, she said.

“We’re no longer offering free checking as a new product or new account,” Bernard said in an interview yesterday. In addition to evaluating best practices, the lender considers “industry trends and changes in the economic and regulatory environment,” she said.

Chief Executive Officer John Stumpf joins other banks in replacing lost fee revenue as Congress nears creation of a consumer protection agency and the Federal Reserve implements rules restricting overdraft fees. Bank of America Corp., the largest U.S. bank by assets and deposits, is developing a tiered structure of charging for checking accounts, the Wall Street Journal reported last month.

New regulations may cut as much as 15 percent of the revenue that banks get from checking accounts, more than half of which are already unprofitable, according to Celent, a Boston- based research firm. Lenders traditionally cover the cost of free checking with overdraft or automated teller machine fees.

“Overdraft fees are big money to most retail banking operations,” Celent analyst Bart Narter said in the May report. “It is the engine that pulls along free checking.”

Avoiding the Fee

To avoid the monthly fee, new Wells Fargo customers will have to maintain a $1,500 minimum average balance or receive a direct deposit of at least $250, Bernard said. The new rules, posted on the company’s website, don’t affect existing customers.

Wells Fargo had offered free checking in every state except California, Bernard said. It made up a small percentage of new account volume because most customers bundle checking with other services, she said. Basic checking accounts in California had required a minimum balance of $1,000 or a $100 monthly direct deposit.

The financial-reform bill was passed by the House of Representatives last month and awaits Senate approval before being sent to President Barack Obama.

The lender reported $1.3 billion in service charges on deposit accounts in the first quarter, down 4 percent from the same period last year, according to an April 21 statement. Consumer checking accounts grew 7 percent in the period ended March from a year earlier.

Wells Fargo has 6,600 retail branches and 2,200 mortgage offices, the most of any U.S. bank, according to a July 7 statement. The new rules won’t apply to Wachovia Corp. branch offices until the branches are converted to Wells Fargo, Bernard said. Wells Fargo bought Wachovia for $12.7 billion in 2008 and has said the merger will be finished by next year.

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