"Banking still ranks among the worst industries in the public's opinion," said Mike Mayo, a banking analyst at the brokerage firm CLSA. "This is good for the customers and good for the banks' images."
Bank of America, for example, which faces a multibillion-dollar penalty for its crisis-era mortgage practices and is trying to shake a reputation for dubious home foreclosures, has introduced a banking account intended to prevent troubled customers from running up fees for overdrawing their balances.
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As part of those efforts, Bank of America executives shadowed low-income families in four cities and asked them to create collages that showed how they felt about money. JPMorgan Chase, which has had its share of legal and regulatory woes, has developed a low-cost prepaid card that comes with many features of a traditional bank account. And American Express, known for catering to affluent customers, sponsored a 40-minute documentary, narrated by the actor Tyler Perry, that bank executives said was created to expose the costs of living without a bank account.
Still, it is hard not to be skeptical, particularly because the banks, most recently in the subprime housing crisis, have traditionally wrung vast profits from some of these same customers, who paid steep rates for loans and high fees on basic checking accounts. And the new accounts still have their share of fees — JPMorgan's prepaid card, for example, costs $4.95 a month — although they tend to be smaller than in the past.
The latest round of banking products also highlights some banks' longer-term strategies. While the customers might not be profitable right now, they could become much more valuable once they start taking out auto loans, credit cards and other types of higher-margin credit. An influx of borrowers would also help banks as they grapple with tepid economic growth and a financial landscape upended by regulations that erode traditional profit centers like risky trading.
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KeyBank, a lender based in Cleveland, for example, hopes to sell products like a line of credit and auto loans to customers who use its basic low-fee bank account.
"Being the right thing to do has a short shelf life," said Bruce Murphy, the bank's head of corporate responsibility. "Unless you really have an underpinning of the economics, it will not survive."