American Express to offer checking accounts with rewards

NEW YORK — American Express launched a checking account product today, a product that will allow its customers to accrue its popular Membership Rewards points the same way they do on its credit and charge cards.

It’s a notable move for AmEx and the banking industry in general, since checking accounts that offered airline miles or rewards went basically extinct after the passage of the Dodd-Frank Act following the Great Recession. Only a handful of small banks and credit unions offer cash back or rewards for debit card purchases.

AmEx’s checking account will come with a debit card and an annual interest yield of 0.5%. The debit card will give account holders one Membership Reward point for every $2 they spend on purchases. Those points can be pooled with the Membership Reward points the cardmember might already be already earning on a credit card.

“Our customers are happy with the benefits and rewards they get from our products, so we have been very interest in finding ways to have a broader relationship with our members,” said Eva Reda, executive vice president and general manager of consumer banking products at AmEx, in an interview.

The new checking account will be available for existing AmEx credit card holders, the company said.

It used to be common for large banks to offer checking accounts that gave cash back for rewards for debit card purchases. JPMorgan Chase had a debit card that gave Mileage Plus points on United Airlines in the early 2000s, for example.

That came to a crashing halt after the enactment of the Durbin Amendment, a part of the Dodd-Frank Act passed in 2010 after the Great Recession. The Durbin Amendment capped the amount of money banks and payment processors could charge merchants for debit card transactions. It was a major win for merchants at the the time, who have long complained about the fees they were paying for routine debit card purchases.

Banks, who were using the fees they were earning from debit card purchases to partly fuel rewards programs, quickly ended these programs.

American Express is not subject to the Durbin Amendment – it operates its own closed system where AmEx operates as both the bank and payment processor. Discover Financial also offers rewards on a checking account and operates a “closed loop” system similar to AmEx.

AmEx has jumped into other consumer banking products over the years, with various degrees of success. The company launched an online-only savings account more than a decade ago, which became popular for the high interest it would pay out to deposit holders. The company also offers prepaid debit cards as well as certificates of deposit.

The new debit card will run on the MoneyPass ATM network, the company said, to allow fee-free withdrawals at eligible ATMs. There will be no monthly maintenance fees. The accounts will not allow a customer to go into a negative account balance as well.