What the Occupy Protests mean for the Financial Services Industry

Today, I’m speaking at the Credit Union Central Canada Government Relations Conference about the public opinion landscape as it relates to politics, the mood of the country, and financial services in Canada.

My presentation will focus somewhat on the Occupy Protests happening all over the country.  Over two weeks ago, we released some public opinion data that we conducted with the Corporate and Community Social Responsibility Conference which  found that while a majority of Canadians support many of the messages the protests are making, only 41% have a favourable impression of the protests and only 15% believe they will have a positive impact on politics in Canada.

In other words, most Canadians like the message, just not the messenger and most believe that governments will not respond because special interests have too much control over public policy.

Despite this worrisome level of cynicism and apathy, the protests have had significant consequences for the financial services industry in the United States.  On November 5th, Occupy protesters in a number of cities organized Bank Transfer Day where they urged consumers to withdraw all their assets from private banks and transfer them to credit unions or other co-operatives.

Since September when the Bank of America introduced a flat-$5 fee to its customers, credit unions in the United States have seen a 50% increase in new account sign-ups or 650,000 new members.

There hasn’t been any news coverage of a similar trend in Canada, but our research finds that there is potential.  Over six in ten Canadians (64%) either strongly or somewhat agreed that Canadian financial institutions have been reckless and greedy.  Many Canadians don’t have a favourable impression of banks, despite the fact that no Canadian bank failed nor required government bailouts and most Canadians use one of the five Chartered Banks for most of their banking needs.  Nonetheless, the experience in the United States last week demonstrates that when public opinion turns against something (like banks) who then go and spark outrage by doing something that seems unfair, consumers will react.