By Willy Staley  Tue Dec 6, 2011

The Success of Bank Transfer Day Still Up for Debate

Back in November, the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) claimed that credit unions took on about 650,000 new customers in the weeks leading up to Bank Transfer Day. It turns out they were off by a long shot. In October, credit unions actually took on an estimated 214,000 new members, far lower than the survey suggested.

This discrepancy has been attributed to the “non-scientific” nature of the initial survey, which aimed to find an estimate of how many megabank customers were fleeing corporate banks for credit unions, and which was done in a “rapid response fashion,” according to Mark Wolff, a CUNA spokesman. The result was an inflated number — 650,000 new members — based, perhaps, on an ambiguity in the language used in the survey. 

The survey asked credit unions about “growth in membership and accounts,” which means that respondents might have reported the number of new accounts being opened by existing members, instead of only reporting new membership growth. This, Wolff suggested, is what led to this wide berth between expected and actual membership growth.

Still, new member growth was higher than usual; between September and October, they took on 441,000 new members. Compare that to all of 2010, when credit unions gained 600,000 new members — this two month surge preceding Bank Transfer Day amounts to about 75% of all of last year’s growth.

Bank Transfer Day Sparks Account Growth Versus New Membership

And furthermore, this new figure doesn’t even include account growth, which could have been as big as, if not bigger than, the earlier estimate of 650,000. There are about 93 million credit union members in the United States, explained Wolff, and only about half of them have checking accounts with their credit union. Because checking account fees were the primary driver behind Bank Transfer Day, he went on, it’s likely that credit unions took on thousands of new checking accounts from existing members moving their checking accounts from Bank of America or Chase into the credit union they already have a savings account with.

The new figure, 441,000, does not take that into account.

But no matter how you cut it, Bank Transfer Day was not quite as powerful a movement as organizers or credit unions wanted it to be. Still, it was statistically significant and not to be ignored entirely.

In a statement, CUNA President and CEO Bill Cheney said: “[I]t is clear that consumers made a significant movement to credit unions in the weeks leading up to ‘Bank Transfer Day.’ Anecdotally, credit unions across the country have reported to us and to their local communities that they experienced record member growth during this period — and many report that growth is continuing at a similarly high level.”

Numbers aside, credit unions got themselves back into the headlines, and into the minds of young people. That might pay dividends for years to come.

 

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    I’d bet that the rate of member growth peaked for credit unions around mid October. By Bank Transfer Day (Nov. 5), the momentum created by BofA’s $5 debit fee was likely easing.