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Originally published December 3, 2011 at 10:02 PM | Page modified December 5, 2011 at 12:32 PM

Corrected version

Exodus of bank customers into credit unions likely to slow

Customers fled major banks in record numbers after new debit-card fees were proposed, but credit unions don't expect the recent surge of new accounts to dramatically change the landscape.

Seattle Times staff reporter

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Months before Occupy Wall Street grabbed the headlines, a group of activists on Vashon Island was agitating for people to transfer their deposits from big banks to credit unions.

Problem was, Vashon Island didn't have a credit union. JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and U.S. Bank were the only options on the island of about 10,000 residents.

Puget Sound Cooperative Credit Union, a small Bellevue institution with branches in Tacoma and Renton, recognized the opportunity.

It opened a Vashon branch in March and took in deposits of more than $5 million by June 30, the credit union said. Meanwhile, according to federal data, deposits at the big banks' branches on Vashon as of June 30 collectively shrank about $3.3 million from a year earlier.

"We've seen a strong demand from those folks out there," said Kevin Ellisen, CEO of Puget Sound Cooperative. "They don't like the big banks very much."

Since Sept. 29, the day Bank of America announced a $5-a-month debit-card fee, credit unions have encouraged consumers to move their money. They enjoyed record account openings Nov. 5, which activists had branded National Bank Transfer Day.

After a public outcry against Bank of America's proposed $5 debit-card fee, the big bank backed off the idea. Wells Fargo and JPMorgan Chase followed, tossing their plans to institute similar fees.

But observers and credit unions say the rush of cash into these not-for-profit institutions will ebb.

"I personally don't see the high media-attention level and high volumes continuing," said Marvin Umholtz, an Olympia consultant to credit unions and banks.

Even before National Bank Transfer Day, Washington ranked high among the states in the percentage of deposits held by credit unions. According to the Credit Union National Association, the national average is about 10 percent; in Washington state, credit unions hold about 20 percent of deposits.

BECU, the state's largest credit union, which heavily marketed checking and savings accounts that pay 6 percent on the first $500, has shattered its previous new-account records for three months in a row.

In August, it signed up 8,800 new members; in September, 9,400; and in October, 16,300 — in all, about three times more members than last fall.

The surge hasn't let up: From Nov. 5 to Nov. 15, BECU said, it opened nearly 5,000 new accounts, compared with about 1,800 new accounts in the same period a year ago.

"People are finally realizing there are other options out there, whether it's a credit union or a local community bank," said BECU spokesman Todd Pietzsch.

One guy rooting for the smaller institutions is Tom Behan, a Vietnam veteran and retired marketing executive in Seattle whose daughter lost her home to a bank foreclosure during the recession.

Since early October, Behan has protested six days a week during the lunch hour outside Bank of America, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo and other bank branches in Seattle, holding a sign encouraging passers-by to join a credit union. (He's a BECU member.)

After one bank told the police he was trespassing, he armed himself with a copy of the city code on trespassing and right-of-way maps from the city, county and local archives.

"I had to prove to the Seattle Police Department that the sidewalk was public and did not belong to the bank," said Behan, 66, who has a pacemaker. "I don't have a hell of a lot of stamina, but I have a lot of animosity against the banks."

The chief executives of big banks have hinted they might not mind losing certain customers — the ones with low account balances.

Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan recently told a bankers' conference that his strategy for 2012 included focusing on the top 20 percent of profitable customers and culling unprofitable ones, according to Banc Investment Daily.

And in a November interview, JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon said the bank dropped plans for a debit-card fee but needs to find a way to cover its expenses for checking accounts.

"Do you know how much it costs to run a checking account each year?" Dimon said. It's about $350 on average to cover a package of services, such as a 24-hour call center, anti-fraud protection, ATMs and online bill pay, he said.

Now the credit unions will have to figure out how to service their new accounts, said Umholtz, the credit-union consultant.

"Signing people up as low-deposit-balance members or customers doesn't necessarily add up to a positive relationship," he said.

Credit unions also say they don't expect the torrid deposit influx to continue.

"I think it's safe to say this certainly can't last forever," BECU's Pietzsch said.

Consumers who want to move their accounts may not follow through because they feel the hassle of switching is too great.

"It's a big step," said Rick Brandsma, CEO of Tacoma-based Sound Credit Union, which saw a 60 percent increase in new accounts in October.

Consumers nowadays often are enrolled in online banking services to pay their credit cards, mortgage and other bills. If they want to close their accounts, they need to make sure they don't miss payments or overdraw their checking account as they change their institution.

Those whose mortgages are serviced by a big bank often keep their checking accounts tied there, too.

Sound Community Bank, which was founded in the 1950s as a credit union and converted to a bank charter in 2003, is a small five-branch operation quite different from the national megabanks.

But Chief Financial Officer Matt Deines said Sound Community Bank didn't see a flood of new accounts.

"People talk about 'banksters,' " Deines said. "They may or may not differentiate" between big banks and small banks.

Patrick Patrick, CEO of Seattle Bank, said his institution, a midsize bank, opened about 200 accounts in October, which he attributes to the Occupy Wall Street protest.

He too doesn't see the backlash against big banks causing them to lose significant market share to small banks and credit unions.

And he's fine with that.

"There's a need for each type of bank," Patrick said. "Big banks take care of governments and corporations. Small banks take care of neighborhoods."

Sanjay Bhatt: 206-464-3103 or sbhatt@seattletimes.com

This story was originally published Dec. 3, 2011, and corrected Dec. 5, 2011. In the original version, the pie chart with the headline "Credit unions hold one-fifth of Washington deposits" incorrectly gave dollar figures in millions. They should have been in billions.

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