Bluebird, the new prepaid card product being rolled out by Walmart and American Express, will provide banks and credit unions with more competition in transaction accounts and technology, but will not likely prove to be an existential threat to either, according to a noted credit union researcher.

Meanwhile, leaders at a credit union specializing in the unbanked and a national consumers organization both expressed concern about the new offering.

Ben Rogers, research director at the Filene Research Institute in Madison, Wis., said the new card will play on some consumers’ desire to “unbundle” their financial lives and relationships instead of having them all in one place.

He said it will also appeal to consumers who have either had difficulties opening checking accounts in the past, dislike checking account fees or like the additional technological tools Bluebird offers.

“If you are someone who has had a problem opening a checking account in the past, maybe because of a hit on Chex Systems, or if you have had bad experience with overdraft fees or really anything, Bluebird might seem appealing,” Rogers said, adding that Bluebird might be spur to force both banks and credit unions to look at how they offer transaction services and with how much consumer difficulty and at what price.

Rogers did not consider Bluebird a threat to the very existence of either banks or credit unions because the card service does  not lend and both Walmart and American Express executives have been firm about saying Bluebird will not offer loans.

“People are always going to need loans and as long as credit unions can offer them at low interest rates, there will be a demand,” Rogers said, “that will keep them seeking out credit unions.”

But, he said, the new prepaid card will have an impact on both bank and credit union lending since the transaction accounts usually provide and anchor for the member or customer within an institution and that relationship often provides cross selling opportunity for loans.

Credit unions may have to step up their loan marketing to compensate, Rogers said, and may need to start making the whole relationship a bigger selling point with potential members earlier on. And he added that the card could hit non-interest income still more since transaction accounts provide that through both card interchange and overdraft protection fees.

The difference between a relationship with the credit union and having a Bluebird card is one of the things that Erika Bell, vice president of strategy and services at the 51,000 member, $117 million Latino Community Credit Union said her credit union points out to potential members. 

Almost all of the members of the Durham, N.C., institution were unbanked before joining the credit union.

“We strongly believe that a full-service financial institution with affordable and ethical products is the best option for families,” Bell wrote in response to an emailed question about Bluebird.

“Our prepaid card product is less expensive and, with a relationship at our credit union, members move on to establish credit and better opportunities for the future,” Bell said.  “A setting such as Walmart that only offers very basic transaction services may preclude users from accessing affordable credit, establishing themselves in the mainstream financial system, and ultimately creating wealth for their families,” she said.

Indeed, Michelle Jun, senior attorney with Consumers Union, a national consumer protection organization, observed that unbanked consumers have both near-term and longer-term needs.

Unbanked consumers need to be aware that while Bluebird might offer a suite of low-cost payment services, the card will never take the place of a true relationship with a financial institution that someone might need later to finance a car, house or obtain a credit card, she said

“The way the world is now, consumers need some sort of relationship with a full-service financial institution going forward if they want to finance a car or a home and this service is not that,” Jun said.