Why banks care only about the 1%

Banks follow the money, and you don't have it.

By Motley Fool Pick of the Day Mar 5, 2012 5:27PM

Image: Credit card (© Fancy/Veer/Corbis/Corbis)By Dan Caplinger


Activist movements like Bank Transfer Day have been instrumental in getting ordinary people to take action when banks are taking advantage of them. But as much as banks claim to want everyone's business, the reality is that some business is a lot more lucrative than others. And when it comes down to it, banks will go to where the profit is -- even if it means treating its ordinary customers worse than they deserve.


One niche in which this emphasis on high-wealth customers is obvious is in the credit card industry. While everyday Americans worry about getting a low interest rate when they carry a balance or avoiding expensive fees, venerable Wall Street financial institutions are fighting tooth and nail for customers in what Occupy Wall Street would call the 1%.


Live it up like Lindsay Lohan
Credit and debit cards have become nearly a necessity for most Americans. Simple tasks like renting a car or reserving a hotel room become a lot more complicated without some kind of plastic. In particular, credit cards are far more flexible in letting you get things done without worrying about your current bank account balance.


But for the well-to-do, credit cards are often far more about status. Ever since its beginning, American Express (AXP) has appealed not to necessity or convenience but rather to status and exclusivity. Starting with its legacy Green Card and going up through gold and platinum offerings to the current pinnacle, its Centurion Card, AmEx has built its reputation on encouraging its cardmembers to climb the status ladder -- regardless of cost.


More recently, other Wall Street institutions have taken aim at challenging AmEx's dominance of the 1% set. As an article in Barron's over the weekend explained, JPMorgan Chase (JPM) has built up its own lineup of high-status cards, including a card made of the precious metals palladium and gold that's available only to the Wall Street bank's private banking clients.


What's at stake
Obviously, serving the 1% carries its own rewards. Even with only a small fraction of AmEx's customers holding Centurion Cards, the $7,500 initiation fee and $2,500 annual fee adds up -- and the word-of-mouth value of having celebrities among the cardmember ranks is valuable for marketing. High volume of purchases also lets banks earn more transaction-based income from sources like interchange fees. Moreover, if JPMorgan can get new private banking clients simply because of a credit card offering, the cross-selling profit opportunities are certainly worth it, giving it a potential competitive advantage over rival Goldman Sachs (GS) in offer lucrative financial services to the ultra-rich.


But the greater potential impact of high-end credit cards is an industry-wide change in the playing field. In many industries, the well-to-do can count on free perks that regular customers don't get. If even the rich have to pay for credit cards, however, then it justifies card companies' imposing fees on their lower-end customers -- even for cards that don't offer anything close to the benefits 1%-targeted cards have.


Winners and losers
AmEx stands to win twice from its high-end card offerings. Because it retains credit risk on its cards, AmEx both reaps more income and avoids more losses with financially secure customers, versus run-of-the-mill cardholders.


Yet even without that consideration, rival card networks Visa (V) and MasterCard (MA) have to challenge AmEx's status in order to compete for the best customers. With the help of issuers like JPMorgan Chase, card networks can boost their own image to rich clientele -- and that's an important draw for prospective issuers choosing which network to use to back their cards.


What to do
Unless you're rich enough that you don't need to worry about annual fees on credit cards, high-end offerings are only worth getting if you particularly value the specific perks a card gives you. With so many lower-end cards offering rewards like cash or frequent-flier miles at little or no annual cost, most people outside the 1% will do much better choosing a plain vanilla rewards card over a high-priced status card.


Fool contributor Dan Caplinger loves his credit card rewards. He doesn't own shares of the companies mentioned in this article. The Motley Fool owns shares of JPMorgan Chase and MasterCard. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Visa and Goldman Sachs, as well as writing a covered strangle position in American Express. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Fool's disclosure policy yells, "Charge!"

Mar 5, 2012 6:35PM
I've been in banking for 2 decades, what the consumer doesn't know is how ruthless Banks are. This is where true greed lies. Fiduciary responsibility went out the window in the 80's. Ceo's and their counterparts are not interested in anything but making legendary profits at the expense of the average person and the poor.

Mar 5, 2012 7:52PM

The megabanks follow the money, but I worked many years for community banks and credit unions and know first-hand they served everyone they possibly could in the 99%. My employers were in small towns and rural areas, where the 1% don't live.  Not doing business w/ the 99% = no business = no bank.


The problem was the drop in the "wall" between commercial and investment banking.  The big banks screwed up by giving mortgage loans to anyone who could fog a mirror, and now those banks are trying to make up for the lost profits from any avenue possible, including the 99%.


Unfortunately, regulations are written as "one-size-fits-all" without any use of common sense by our elected federal politicians, who are in the pockets of the megabanks.  As a result, many decent banks will be bought out by megabanks because they drowned under the cost of complying with the law. So, the megabanks will continue to get bigger, and so will the cost of the next bailout.

Mar 5, 2012 8:25PM
And the rich get richer, and you know the rest.
Mar 5, 2012 8:32PM
The banks are too busy at the casino...derivatives.  There are 600 TRILLION of them out there, more than the world is worth! 
Mar 5, 2012 8:44PM

Goldman Sacs and J PI Morgan turned in to banks from investment banks so they could get the bailout $$$$$.  The whole thing took 24 hours!  Anything to do with Paulson (Treasury secretary at the time & former president of Goldman)?  Do you put anything past them?

They don't want brick and mortar branches and regular people for customers.  We're too much trouble.  Give them swaps and other derivatives...aren't those the kinds of things that got us in the mess in 2008?

Mar 5, 2012 8:24PM
to many fees,not enough return on our money.screw the banks.thats why i dont use them anymore.
Mar 5, 2012 7:55PM
Well generally Banks have sucked from day 1.  But if you need some money, and don't have a rich uncle, you end up begging them for the cash, and getting screwed on the interest. As far as using them to MAKE money forget that, with the measly interest they are handing out these days, it does'nt cover your cost of living.SO STAY AWAY FROM BANKS. I would usually say go to your local credit union, but so many of us has done that, they are starting to get a little uppity too. My liquid asset account in a local credit union, went from a .55% to a .35% interest earned. I guess they don't need my money as much.
Mar 5, 2012 7:02PM

I keep my banking to a minimum .. and run away when people talk about a loan.  I don't care what my credit rating is (I never check on it) .. cash talks when you want to buy something worth having.  And as far as paying a bank to use my money .. that is a no brainer for a fool.  It is easier to get to be a 1%'er if you don't give your money to the banks, so they throw you out of your house.

Mar 5, 2012 7:45PM
In my day, customers who routinely overdrew their accounts, incurred countless NSF and overdraft fees, where actually some of the most prized customers in our bank. Those customers may not be the 1% but they sure where profitable for the banks.
Mar 6, 2012 8:44AM

Many people who have these so called "STATUS CREDIT CARDS" are like the people with a "COACH" purse that costs $500.  They have a $1.00 bill and a hand full of credit cards maxed out in the purse.  These stupid people do not impress me with their wasteful spending.


Take some of this ill advised spent money and do things to help the down and out.  It will give you a real since of satisfaction that a dumb "PLATINUM" credit card or "COACH PURSE" can never give you.  Same for those who insist on driving $50-$70K autos and SUVS.


A lot of these same people are ones who say they do not have any retirement and I am suppose to help them out because of their dumb decisions over the years!

Mar 5, 2012 7:20PM
Scorpio Goddess .. Thumbs up Might can trace the ruthless banking practices back several more decades.  Breech of Fiduciary Duty with the Comptroller of Currency and other state / federal regulators in a sweetheart waltz with the banks isn't just a maybe.  I got more trust with giving a fish to a grizzly bear, than a penny to a banker.
Mar 6, 2012 1:43PM
A $7500 initiation fee and $2500 per year? WOW.... I thought the rich were smarter than that. They must be the same people buying the Chevy Volt.
Mar 6, 2012 11:11AM
Bet Warren Buffet doesn't care about having a Status Symbol" Card. :-)
Mar 5, 2012 8:06PM

old man - please reconsider the weatherproof* box - your money can't grow that way - and if you die banks are required to inventory the box with your heirs - so any valuables in it don't escape possible taxation


doug - please check your credit report, which you can do free annually with the three major bureaus - you could easily become a victim of identity theft, with thieves taking out loans IN YOUR NAME. I'd buy a home shredder too; a decent one is only about $20.


* if such a thing exists - even the most expensive vaults leak onto/into caskets sooner or later

Mar 6, 2012 12:11PM
I thought it was maybe because they had all the money. Go figure.
Mar 5, 2012 9:01PM
theincrediblesrinkin​gwoman .. I have a shredder .. but if someone wants to steal my identity they are a real glutton for punishment .. I was born in a ghost town and everyone in three hundred square miles of where I live, know who I am. Surprised
Mar 5, 2012 8:11PM
WoW! Another rant about banks and how only 1% of the people have the money. You guys keep the war on capitalism going. Maybe you can get the people rioting in the streets and collapse
the government. Then who ends up in charge? Working out great in the middle east isnt it?
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