Why the Big 5 banks should be pushing for the end of 'free banking' (and the government shouldn't)
Being able to charge a direct amount for the services they provide would bring some significant advantages to the big banks in the heavily regulated environment that they are increasingly operating in. When there is more focus on the market share that each of the banks has, and where more market share is seen as bad, then the banks will want to focus not on the absolute market share but the quality of the market share.
All of the big banks today have customers that they don’t make any money from. These will be the types of customers that open a current account for their household money, for their book club, for their children, where the balances are low, transactions sizes are small and they have only one product. If market share is going to be restricted then these are the customers that the banks are going to want to be shot of. The problem is that in today’s banking environment it is very difficult for a bank to fire customers. However if customers were made to pay directly for the services that they use then it would be far easier for the banks to adjust their charges to either makes the low balance/low transaction value customers profitable or, better still for the banks, to encourage those customers to take their business elsewhere.
With four out of the five big banks now being run by investment bankers not retail bankers, and Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group focussed on a strategy of raising their Return on Equity (ROE) up to at least the 14-15% range, then there is clear evidence that making customers pay directly for the services they use can help achieve this. In Australia where this model has existed for many years, The ‘Four Pillars’ (National Australia, Commonwealth Bank, WestPac and ANZ), have in the past enjoyed ROEs of 20+%. Even with tougher regulation they are each expecting ROEs of around 16%, significantly higher than any of the UK banks.
However whilst this all sounds very attractive for the big banks, it is not great for the new entrants, who will struggle to compete with the scale advantages that will allow the big banks to make their charges attractive for the customers they want. It also raises the big question of who will provide the banking services to the customers that the big banks don’t want? It has the potential to significantly increase the number of the unbanked. As the likes of Vince Cable continue their crusade against the banks and push for ever more transparency of charging for banking services, the politicians need to be wary of the consequences of getting what they wish for.