Backlash hits banks

Credit unions opened an estimated 650,000 new accounts in October 2011 — more than the 600,000 they gained in all of 2010 — as Americans moved their money from the toxic big banks that brought the world’s economy to its knees.

Does anyone still think the Occupy movement has no message? 

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The move toward concrete anti-Wall Street action is natural. It’s easy to mock Occupy protesters as a freak sideshow. Bankers at the Chicago Board of Trade dropped thousands of McDonald’s job applications from their windows down at protesters below. Another group mockingly toasted champagne from a balcony as protesters marched down Wall Street. An anonymous hedge fund worker told The New York Times that most people in his industry “view it as a ragtag group looking for sex, drugs and rock ‘n’ roll.”

I’m sure they wish that was the entirety of the Occupy movement, but as it matures, the protesters’ tactics have become more sophisticated. The Occupiers recognized that all the protests in the world wouldn’t do anything more than hurt the feelings of delicate bankers. So how do you strike back against soulless hacks who care about nothing but money? You organize people to move their money to nonprofit community banks and credit unions.

Ironically, the Move Your Money effort got its biggest boost from the banks themselves. After hundreds of billions in taxpayer-funded bailouts and $1.2 trillion in secret low-interest loans from the Federal Reserve Bank, banks like Wells Fargo and Bank of America announced new fees on debit card usage. Just as Netflix found out recently, all it takes is one last straw for customers to overcome inertia. The $5 monthly fee unleashed so much fury, the banks had to stand down. But it was too late. People were fed up, and Move Your Money was right there to guide people in the right direction.

This past Saturday was officially “Bank Transfer Day,” and both the Credit Union National Association and the National Association of Federal Credit Unions reported record website traffic. An NAFCU survey found that 54 percent of its members reported an increase in customers because of Bank Transfer Day. And while the numbers from this past weekend are still being tallied up, CUNA says the industry’s assets are now likely over $1 trillion. They were $942.5 billion at the end of June.

Sixty billion dollars is significant — and quite the score for a movement with no message, isn’t it? 

But the effort isn’t over. Bank Transfer Day has now evolved into Bank Transfer Mondays, to continue convincing people to put their money into financial institutions that directly serve their communities and lack the profit motive that precipitated the bailout of Wall Street. 

And there’s already organizing around Balance Transfer Day — urging people to move their loan balances away from credit cards issued by the too-big-to-fail banks. 

High-fee mutual funds are also in the cross hairs, as investors realize that low-fee index funds usually outperform their actively managed peers. In 2006, the total annual trading costs of those actively managed investment funds was $101.8 billion. If every investment portfolio included only index funds, the trading costs would be just $8.9 billion, according to a 2008 study by Dartmouth economist Kenneth French. 

Consumers are livid. So much so that they’re willing to overcome their natural resistance to change to strike back at a system that has done nothing but exploit them. That’s the Occupy message.

Moulitsas is the publisher and founder of Daily Kos (dailykos.com).