Consumers can't quit the big banks

By David Ellis, staff writer

NEW YORK ( -- It's the financial equivalent of a dysfunctional relationship.

For more than a year, consumers have howled about the litany of sins committed by the country's biggest lenders -- including accepting billions in bailout dollars, cutting credit lines and, in some instances, paying outsized bonuses.

But for all their grumbling, many Americans just can't seem to quit the megabanks that they have complained so loudly about.

In fact, the number of deposits controlled by some of the nation's largest financial institutions remain near their highest levels ever, based on the latest data from the industry.

Non-interest bearing deposits, which include everyday consumer checking accounts, at San Francisco-based Wells Fargo (WFC, Fortune 500), for example, have ballooned by $14.8 billion, or 8.9%, since it completed its purchase of Wachovia.

Even Citigroup (C, Fortune 500), which has endured more than its fair share of criticism for its role in the crisis, revealed last week its own domestic non-interest deposit base jumped by nearly a third over the past year.

Of course, some of that increase is attributable to the fact that American investors were looking for the safety of cash in the bank after the market tanked last fall.

What is worth noting however, is that the nearly 8,000 small and community lenders haven't enjoyed the same level of deposit growth that their larger peers have over the past year, according to recent data published by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

But it hasn't been for lack of trying.

Small banks and credit unions seized upon the populist outrage as troubles at the big banks started to mount, urging consumers to break it off with those institutions.

Two months after the collapse of Lehman Brothers, the National Association of Federal Credit Unions, for example, launched the web site aimed at helping consumers locate credit unions where they might be eligible to join.

Others have tried to shatter the common perception that small lenders are far less convenient and boast fewer of the cutting-edge technologies that large banks offer in an effort to get customers to switch banks.

Last May, the Austin, Texas-based consultancy BancVue launched Kasasa, a program that pools resources of community banks, allowing them to market themselves to consumers more cheaply and offer some of the same attractive rewards such as free checking, no-fee ATM withdrawals and debit card rewards programs.

"It is letting them [consumers] know they can have the best of both worlds and they don't have to sacrifice," said Susan Sierota, the chief marketing officer of BancVue.

Even self-styled activists have entered the fray. Last month, Huffington Post founder Arianna Huffington and Rob Johnson of the Roosevelt Institute launched "Move Your Money", a campaign which encourages Americans to move their deposits to local lenders so taxpayers aren't again forced to rescue a lender deemed "too big to fail."

Indeed, some of those efforts have been rather successful -- and some small banks have been cleaning up as a result.

At Farmers Citizens Bank -- a seven-branch lender with offices in and around Columbus, Ohio -- deposits grew by 30% during the fourth quarter.

In any given year, deposit growth is usually only a fraction of that amount, noted Coleman Clougherty, the bank's president and CEO, attributing the increase to the bank's decision to join Kasasa.

"It has been great for us," he said. "The good news is we also have very good loan demand to match those deposits."

Still, some industry experts remain skeptical that these numbers herald the start of a mass exodus of customers from the country's four largest lenders - Bank of America (BAC, Fortune 500), JPMorgan Chase (JPM, Fortune 500), Wells Fargo and Citigroup.

The reason?

Switching banks is simply too much of a hassle for many Americans, notes Red Gillen, senior analyst at the consultancy Celent.

Consumers not only have to go through the process of shuttering their previous account and establishing a new one, they also have to untangle themselves from all the other services they rely on their bank for.

That means updating direct deposit information with employers and automatic savings plans for retirement, for example. And if you're like the millions of other Americans that have abandoned their checkbook in favor of paying your bills online, that could mean having to switch those over to a new site as well.

And if there's nothing to sweeten the pot, like higher interest or lower fees, most consumers may not feel that big of a need to hit back at the nation's leading lenders.

"All things being the same, they would rather stay with their current bank," said Gillen.

Talkback: Have you switched from a larger bank to a smaller bank recently? If so, we'd like to hear from you. Leave your comments below or click here to e-mail the reporter of this story. To top of page

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