The Occupy Wall Street movement seems to have caught lots of folks by surprise. Perhaps it was easy to ignore in its earliest days, but seeing mass arrests on the Brooklyn Bridge and recordings of police brutality has shined a spotlight on things. Winning last Friday’s stand-off with Mayor Bloomberg and Brookfield Properties over plans to “clean” the OWS homebase of Zuccotti Park has only reinforced the view that OWS has evolved from a fringe action to a movement to be reckoned with. Now the Washington Post is reporting that President Obama will make anti-Wall Street sentiment a key part of his re-election campaign. So maybe we should be paying attention to another fast-spreading movement that can do a lot more direct damage to the big banks.
Kristen Christian owns a small business in Los Angeles. Over the past few weeks she’s been promoting an event called Bank Transfer Day. Her idea is to get as many Americans as possible to leave their large banks in favor of smaller community banks and credit unions. November 5th is D-Day and Kristen and her sympathizers are relying on social media to get the word out. A quick glance at the Facebook page gives you an idea of how they’re doing as of right now:
There’s another movement with similar aims that’s also been getting more attention as of late. The Move Your Money Project was founded by media-heavyweight Ariana Huffington and has been around since December 2009. Its Facebook page currently looks like this:
With 156 million FB users in the U.S. fans of the Bank Transfer / Move Your Money Movements are barely detectable. Nothing to worry about, right? Wrong. Here’s why we’re watching this closely:
- As Occupy Wall Street has shown, a few high profile incidents are all it takes for these “fringe” movements to gather big momentum and make it onto the national radar screen. For OWS that moment came last month when a New York police officer was filmed pepper-spraying a group of corralled women. A few more high profile incidents like this one and the Bank Transfer movement could make a similar leap onto the national radar.
- Banks are great at scoring own-goals. Bank of America’s new plan to charge users $5 for using their debit card caused widespread outrage. Some lawmakers are even asking the Justice Department to investigate whether banks are colluding on these new fees. Two guesses for what this will mean for customer retention.
- Credit unions are seeing unprecedented interest from new potential customers. Look at how this search term has been trending on Google. As you can see, the number of people using the search term “credit unions” has recently been much higher than the long-term average (represented by 1.00). It’s even higher than it was during the depths of the 2008 financial crisis when people weren’t sure whether the big banks would make it!
This interest is also being confirmed by industry trade publications like the Credit Union Times, which is reporting big jumps in traffic on CU-related sites.
- Finally, anecdotal reports are showing that the banks, themselves, are very frightened of the damage this movement could inflict. Talking Points Memo reports the following from conversations with the Bank Transfer Day-founder:
“Several corporate-level banking institutions have sent ‘trolls’ to discourage the movement through the event page, including JP Morgan Chase, Bank of America, Wells Fargo and Merrill Lynch,” Christian wrote to TPM in an email. “I’ve encouraged all supporters to respond civilly to these bank employees.”
As proof, Christian provided TPM with screenshots of a wall post from a woman who’s LinkedIn profile indicates she is a “Teller Ops Specialist” at Bank of America.
TPM has contacted the woman and will update when we receive a response.
“When ‘trolls’ have been confronted regarding their employment with a corporate banking institution, their posts & profiles have mysteriously disappeared,” Christian told TPM.
Reports from customers who actually have gone to the bank to close their account show that bank employees are very nervous about these actions. The following comes from a user on Reddit:
“It literally took me 30 minutes to close my account. But the branch manager was freaked out because of me closing my account, she was worried her district manager would ask why I was closing my account. I then told her this, “look this isn’t anything against you or any of your tellers in this branch. I’m just not comfortable having my life savings wrapped up with Chase. I’ve read plenty of news articles about shady practices Chase has been in. I’m worried that Chase invests money in other states with bad loans. I’m not comfortable letting a for profit company take everything I saved and make bad choices. I dont [sic] want to contribute to the cause. I want to take my money, put it in my local credit union, and help them give borrowing capability to my community.”
She looked like she was about to cry. I didn’t say it in a dick tone mind you. I just felt that she would have to answer to her boss why someone pulled their entire savings out in one day, she had to know the truth.”
If the banks are taking these threats seriously then perhaps the rest of us should, too.