There are at least two ways to look at Bank of America's ( BAC ) announcement that it will now charge $5 per month to any customers who use debit cards for their intended purpose - making purchases. The bank is either desperate...or supremely confident.
These changing economics presumably involve the new regulatory environment that banks are dealing with in the wake of the Dodd-Frank financial reform act. In particular, they'll struggle with the Durbin amendment, which caps some - but not all - of the fees banks can levy.
In a move that should surprise no one, the banks have decided that if they can't soak the consumer directly (by levying fees on merchants which are then passed on in the price of goods and services) they'll just go straight for their customers' wallets.
Bank of America is not a particularly happy banking institution - its share value is down nearly 55 percent since the start of the year, and it faces signfiicant legal and financial challenges, from the robo-signing scandal to potentially devastating lawsuits from major investors who claim they were sold a bill of goods when it came to mortgage -backed assets.
However, it's still the largest bank in the U.S. by assets. A recent Dow Jones Newswires report pointed out that smaller competitors are taking this opportunity to highlight their own, lower-fee offerings - but still mentioned that JPMorgan Chase ( JPM ) and Wells Fargo ( WFC ) are piloting similar programs.
The bank clearly has to do something to stem falling profits and reassure investors, and it may be betting that its massive customer base will not get around to moving their assets into smaller, more consumer-friendly local banks and credit unions.
Bank of America's increasingly toxic public image will present further challenges. While Goldman Sachs and JPMorgan exemplify the investment banking side of the financial crisis, Bank of America - which owns Merrill Lynch - is the personal face of the banking industry for millions of students, homeowners and workers, charging ATM fees, collecting mortgages and foreclosing on millions of homes. That's part of the reason why hundreds of protesters gathered on the company's downtown Boston, Massachusetts doorstep in a protest led by Right to the City , chanting "Bank of America - Bad for America" and "You got bailed out - we got sold out!"
Seven demonstrators were arrested for trespassing at the apparently orderly demonstration, a Boston Police officer stated. However, Universal Hub editor Adam Gaffin Tweeted that 20 participants were arrested, all of whom were designated for a sit-in.
Bank of America stock fell over 3.5 percent in trading today.