Walmart, American Express Target the Unhappily Banked

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NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- American Express (AXP) and Walmart(WMT) on Monday announced the launch of Bluebird, an alternative to debit and checking accounts, in an attempt to target "unbanked, underbanked and unhappily banked" customers.

Customers who sign up for a Bluebird account will not have to maintain any minimum balances or pay monthly, annual or overdraft fees. Any fees customers pay will be "clear, transparent and within their control", the companies said.

The product builds on a pilot program launched late last year, in what seemed to be a direct response to customer backlash against bank fees. Bank of America (BAC) , JPMorgan Chase (JPM) and other banks were forced to withdraw proposals to charge fees associated with the use of debit cards after customers threatened to shut down their accounts and take their business to credit unions.

Still, the fees associated with checking accounts continues to be on the rise. Walmart and American express cite a Bretton Woods study that found consumers now pay $259 a year for an average checking account, in addition to higher minimum balances and a growing list of fees associated with services.

"In an era where it is increasingly "expensive to be poor," we have worked with Walmart to create a financial services product that rights many of the wrongs that plague the market today," said Dan Schulman, group president, Enterprise Growth, American Express in a statement.

Bluebird customers can get access to cash at a network of more than 22,000 MoneyPass ATMs nationwide. Cash access through MoneyPass' network is fee free and surcharge free for Bluebird customers enrolled in direct deposit. For customers not enrolled in direct deposit, each MoneyPass ATM withdrawal is $2. For out-of-network ATMs, each withdrawal is also $2, though additional ATM operator fees apply.

Cash added to the account via debit card will also be charged $2. Customers can add upto $1000 on daily basis to their account.

Other features include the ability to deposit money in a variety of ways including payroll deposit, remote check capture via the Bluebird mobile app or linking a checking, savings or debit card to the account and the ability to control subaccounts for friends and family from a smartphone.

At this point, overdraft facilities or a credit line are not available with the account. The companies hope to roll out additional features including check writing facility and more options to deposit money in 2013.

Customers can sign up for free at Bluebird.com or get a $5 starter kit at a local Walmart.

The accounts are not FDIC-insured but are 100% backed by American Express Travel Related Services, the company said.

Neither company would elaborate on how the economics of the product works nor how much money they expect to make from the product.