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Many banks are eliminating free checking in response to a new federal law that could eat into bank earnings, the Wall Street Journal reports. PNC, though, is breaking ranks by keeping its checking accounts free. The Pittsburgh-based bank says it could lose $800 million a year because of the law, which reduces the amount banks can charge merchants for debit-card transactions. 

Here's the catch: continued free checking at PNC will come at the expense of perks like debit-card rewards and reimbursement for non-PNC ATM fees. In addition to these cost-saving measures, PNC will try to earn back some of its its lost debit-card revenue by attracting new customers and encouraging existing customers to open fee-based accounts with more products and services.  

The debit-card rule, which will take effect in July, has prompted most industry players--both big banks like Bank of America and smaller banks and credit unions--to tack on fees to checking accounts as a means of shifting the costs of extending debit rewards to customers. Some, like J.P. Morgan, are cutting back on debit rewards as well.

PNC's Joseph Guyaux noted that the bank didn't want to punish its customers--70 percent of whom have free checking--"for something they didn't have control over." But do customers care more about free checking than, say, debit rewards? What ultimately matters to people when choosing a bank?

A J.D. Power survey released on Tuesday provides one possible answer. The study found that while more customers are switching banks this year than last, they're not particularly concerned about fees and rates. When customers select a bank, the study's release explained, "the most important factors driving their decision are advertising; branch convenience; products and services; promotional offers; and direct and indirect customer experience ... Pricing--fees and interest rates--carries relatively little weight in influencing customer purchase decisions, despite recent heavy media coverage of changes to fees for bank accounts and credit cards."

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