CHARLOTTE, N.C. ( TheStreet) -- Americans probably wish that they could charge an overdraft fee to big banks that need to be bailed out by the federal government. Alas, that kind of overdraft fee is not likely to be coming to the banking sector any time soon. However, on Tuesday, Bank of America ( BAC) delivered the next best thing: an end to exorbitant overdraft fees charged to their customers. Of course, anyone who has been in a bank branch in recent years has probably witnessed at least one customer storming in and heading straight for the poor customer service reps, armed with no more than a bucket of bank-branded pens with which to defend themselves from the fury of "the overdrafted." The Bank of America decision is being viewed as a good public relations move, and other big banks may follow suit; consumer groups have already publicly challenged other banks to join Bank of America in eliminating the overdraft fees. For Bank of America shareholders, on the other hand, overdraft fees can represent rather sizable revenue streams for the bank in which they've invested. Bank of American officials were mum on how much the bank has raked in from overdraft fees. However, a New York Times article on Wednesday reported that "anecdotal evidence" suggests overdraft gouging had been a multibillion-dollar business for the bank. The Times article suggested, without specific data, that the overdraft fee elimination would result in a loss of tens of millions of dollars in revenues per year for Bank of America.
Regardless of individual banks making proactive moves to stem criticism from the contentious overdraft issue, a new federal rule will require banks to ask customers for permission to provide overdraft services. That federal clamp-down is expected to cause the loss of billions of dollars in overdraft revenue for the sector. In 2009, banks generated about $20 billion from overdraft fees, according to Moebs Services, an economic research firm. Interestingly enough, it seems to be a select group of accounting flunkies among bank customers who have made overdraft fees the likes of a lottery game for the banks in the first place. The Times article noted that a 2008 study from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation found that 93% of overdraft fees are generated by just 14% of the customers who exceed their balances five times or more a year. Approximately 75% of bank customers were smart enough to avoid the fees. More specifically, debit purchases account for roughly 60% of overdrafts at the biggest debit card issuer in all the land: Bank of America. And Bank of America has opted out of asking customers to opt-in to overdraft services, which the new federal rule will require. Thus, the question for Bank of America shareholders is: Have overdraft fees been big enough to make a difference to the financials of the bank as an investment? And, at a larger level, if the other big banks follow Bank of America's lead as a way to stave off any negative public relations -- something the bank sector obviously does not need -- does all this overemphasis on overdrafting make any difference to bank sector investors?
The banking sector was already expecting a drop in fees from overdraft services with the introduction of the new federal rule anyway. Citigroup ( C) already does not charge an overdraft fee on debit card charges specifically. Other big banks, like JPMorgan Chase ( JPM) and Wells Fargo ( WFC) have yet to reveal details of more customer-friendly overdraft policies. Which all begs the question: Is Bank of America's move on overdraft fees the right thing to do -- or is it a public relations stunt that could impact the returns to Bank of America shareholders? Take our poll below to see what TheStreet has to say. And if you'd like to deposit a piece of your mind in the Bank of Public Opinion, feel free to leave a comment below.
-- Reported by Eric Rosenbaum in New York. Follow TheStreet.com on Twitter and become a fan on Facebook.