The Competition & Markets Authority launched, what they promise to be, a comprehensive inspection of the banking sector, with the perceived lack of competition within the industry providing the foundation for investigation.
Having propagated a culture of half-truths and ambiguity for years now, the CMA have concurred that banks now need drastic action taken against them. Targeting complex overdraft charges as indicative of the confusing choices unwitting customers have to make on daily basis, the CMA stress how difficult it is for savers to make educated decisions, due to poor conveyance of financial details by lenders across the country.
The regulator even suggests that banks have forsaken competition altogether, and prices are actually creeping up due to a ‘levelling-out effect’. An 18-month inquiry has been initiated which could lead to significant reforms for the banking industry, such as a CAP on overdraft fees and a ban on excessive charges for tardiness. Many ideas for reform focus on boosting small business returns, with recent official figures showing only Metro Bank came close to competing with the banking giants.
These giants, known as the big four colloquially, are Barclays, HSBC, Lloyds and RBS ñ the latter of whom are owned by the taxpayer, with Lloyds floating TSBC on the stock market and RBS having experienced a mass buyout following the financial crisis. Between them, they control over 77% of current accounts in the UK. Yet despite disproportionate fees, annual switching levels are low ñ only 3% of customers change bank per year.
“Our studies have found that significant competition concerns remain which mean that customers may not be getting consistently good service and value from their banks,” said the CMA’s chief executive, Alex Chisholm.
Research from influential consumer group, Which?, showed that someone who takes out an overdraft with the wrong provider could pay over £150 in fees than if they had chosen a different one.
Richard Lloyd, executive director of Which?, said: “For too long, customers have been getting a raw deal from the biggest high-street banks, so a full inquiry into the current account market is welcome, if long overdue.”
Are Santander the answer ñ Britain seems to think so?
Figures last week showed a remarkable trend in British switching. Over 200,000 people have switched their current account to Santander, following the Spanish banking giantís release of their market-leading Current Account Switching Service in September last year.
Additionally, data from research body TNS also shows more customers switching to Santander than any other bank, with 23% of all switchers moving to Santander. Priding itself on its fluid structure and rapid bank account transfers, Santander could provide the catalyst the big four need to drive prices down.
Santanderís flagship scheme, its first version launched in March 2012, 89% of customers whoíve joined Santander have enrolled into a 123 Account.
Offering a fantastic interest rate of 3% on balances up to £20,000 and impressive money-back features on domestic bills, with various other lucrative reimbursement measures on council tax, utility bills, broadband and phone bills, Santander outcompetes almost every corner of the market.
In an age where banks are offering miserly returns on investments and ISAs are effectively mutton dressed as lamb, Santander are offering a noticeably higher interest rate than all of them.
Drawbacks include a £2 monthly fee and a minimum deposit of £500 per month, however, with over £450 on offer in interest returns from a £20,000 investment, following tax deductions, these can be seen as trifling hassles. When the multiple cashback features are brought into consideration, these drawbacks are almost meaningless.
Steve Pateman, head of UK banking at Santander, said: “We’ve been working hard to make improvements and introduced new enhancements throughout 2013 to deliver a better customer experience.
“Recent current account switching data and satisfaction surveys demonstrate that we’re on the right track, but we recognise we have more to do and will continue to focus on delivering great service to all of our customers.”
Despite being renowned for their lackadaisical standard of provision in the past, Santanderís recent developments have certainly caused a stir in the market. From the UKís perspective, with competition drying up across the banking sector, most pertinently with the big four, Santander appear a refreshing alternative which can hopefully provide the catalyst for a new era of switching and enhanced competition.