ICYMI from The Washington Post Columnist: Capping Overdraft Fees Could Actually Hurt Poor Families

January 25, 2024

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s recent overdraft proposal is the focus of a column appearing in The Washington Post this week in which the author, Megan McArdle, highlights how this flawed policy “might end up hurting some of the very people it’s supposed to help: low-income Americans on the fringes of the banking system.”

To read the full piece, click HERE or continue reading below.

Opinion | Capping overdraft fees could actually hurt poor families

By Megan McArdle
January 24, 2024

Say what you want about the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s proposal to limit overdraft fees, it’s political gold.

“When companies sneak hidden junk fees into families’ bills, it can take hundreds of dollars a month out of their pockets,” President Biden said in a statement last week. “That might not matter to the wealthy, but it’s real money to hardworking families — and it’s just plain wrong.”

Most Americans agree; data from Pew Charitable Trusts released in June shows that 84 percent of people surveyed told pollsters that the government should do something to bring down overdraft fees, and 54 percent wanted the government to take action on other bank fees as well.

Unfortunately, good politics don’t necessarily make good policy. And I’m worried this move might end up hurting some of the very people it’s supposed to help: low-income Americans on the fringes of the banking system.

These people are far and away the heaviest users of bank overdrafts. The Financial Health Network, a personal finance nonprofit, says the group most likely to overdraft includes “financially vulnerable” households that struggle to pay their bills every month and typically make less than $30,000 a year. Almost half of financially vulnerable households with checking accounts overdrafted in 2022, and of that group, two-thirds overdrafted at least three times, one-third did so six or more times, and one-fifth overdrafted 10 times or more. With an average overdraft fee of $26.61, hundreds of dollars in fees can land on the most cash-strapped customers. Capping those fees — possibly as low as $3 — would be a huge boon to families who really need the help. Who could oppose that?

Well, as with any nice-sounding policy, it’s important to consider the alternatives, both for the customer and for the banker.

For depositors, overdraft fees can be an expensive alternative to even worse options, such as payday loans or having their electricity shut off (and paying a reconnection fee to turn it back on). And “the best of bad alternatives” can also be sort of true for bankers, who must find some way to defray the cost of providing what is basically an unsecured loan to people who are, as we’ve seen, often financially struggling and might be unable to repay the money. The fees also help pay for “free” checking (which costs banks quite a bit of money to provide).

If we cap overdraft fees, how will banks make up the lost revenue?

From profits, you say, and fair enough, but Patrick McKenzie, who writes the Bits About Money newsletter, points out that the reason your bank is so obsessed with getting you to sign up for paperless statements is that the profit margins on checking accounts are so thin, they can be meaningfully improved by saving the cost of 12 stamps a year. “Margins on small bank accounts are very thin,” he wrote recently, and “credit losses can easily be larger than several years of them.”

Now the government wants to make those accounts even less profitable. It seems possible banks would look to limit their losses by getting rid of those customers or making up the revenue somewhere else — or possibly both. This seems to have happened in the past, judging from what we saw when federal regulators preempted some state fee caps in 2001. According to researchers from the New York Fed, the exempted banks both raised overdraft fees and expanded available overdraft credit, while lowering minimum balance requirements. The rate at which checks were returned for insufficient funds declined by 15 percent. And the share of low-income households with a bank account rose by 10 percent, suggesting that minimum balance requirements had kept those households from opening accounts.

That doesn’t mean that no one would benefit from this rule. High overdraft fees can also deter people from opening a bank account, and it’s possible that effect would outweigh any contraction of credit. The financial industry has also changed a lot since 2001, with nonbank alternatives, such as Cash App, that might offer the marginal bank customer a better replacement than an old-fashioned check-cashing store. But there would still likely be winners and losers, and I don’t know whether the former’s gains would outweigh the latter’s losses. I’m not sure the administration does, either.