Wednesday, 2 July 2014

Interest rate rise will be the litmus test for challenger banks

Banks don’t like periods of stable interest rates and the rates in the UK have been stable for a long time now. The reason that banks like to have the interest rates changing frequently is because each change is an opportunity to improve the net interest margin, to squeeze a bit more profit out of the customer.

With the Governor of the Bank of England, Mark Carney, indicating and then soft shoe shuffling away from the position that interest rates could go up as early as the end of 2014 savers shouldn’t get too excited as firstly the rise won’t be large and secondly banks usually don’t pass on the full amount to customers but keep a bit back for themselves. Bank business plans are built on the assumption that they won’t pass on the full benefits to the customer. With bank profitability squeezed by regulation and low interest rates this is why the banks are looking forward so much to greater interest rate volatility.

So the question is whether the challenger banks will back their branding of doing banking differently by not following the herd and instead passing on the full amount of the rate rise? After all it isn’t as if they are incurring additional costs (other than typing into the computer the new interest rate which is not exactly difficult) when the rate rises so there is no justification for taking a slice of the interest rate rise.

Most of the challenger banks find themselves in the position where they have more deposits, whether from savings accounts or from balances on current accounts, than they need. A sure fire way to lose money as a bank is to be paying out more to customers in interest than you are receiving back in interest and fees. This is why you won’t find the likes of TSB, Metro Bank, Aldermore or Handelsbanken appearing in the best buy tables for savings accounts. They want you to like them but they’d rather not attract too much of your money, particularly at a high cost.

TSB, the spin off from Lloyds Banking Group, is in the worst position. So bad is the situation for TSB that Lloyds has had to pad out TSB by lending it a book of loans to soak up some of the excess savings for the next few years. Not only that it also has an infrastructure (branches, back office and IT systems) which is larger than it needs for its existing customer base. It is like a new boy at school where its mother has bought it a uniform that is a few sizes too big to allow for growth. This means that for TSB passing on the full interest rate increase will only extend the loss making period of the bank, which it is unlikely shareholders will support.

Equally you won’t find the challenger banks topping the lending price tables. They want to lend you money but, given their cost of acquiring deposits they can’t in the long term price aggressively. This is where the incumbent banks have a significant advantage. Their cost of funding is far lower. Having large numbers of current accounts with large balances for which the majority of customers are paid no interest they can afford to lend at far lower rates than the challenger banks if they chose to. Instead of passing this advantage onto customers they choose to make a larger profit whilst still charging competitive prices to win new business.

When it comes to existing customers the challenger banks don’t appear to be backing their customer focused words with actions. A primary source of profits for banks are made from customers whose fixed rate or discount deals and have ended and have been moved onto the bank’s Standard Variable Rate. This is always higher than what a new customer could get. If the challenger banks really are focussed on long terms relationships with their customers and with providing good value for money then when the end of a fixed rate or discount period is coming up rather than just telling the customer that they are going to move onto the SVR (which the banks wouldn’t tell them if they weren’t obligated to) they would be offering them a new fixed rate or a new discounted rate. However most banks don’t do this because they want the additional profit they make from having customers on the higher interest rate. Instead they mark the customers as DND (Do Not Disturb), waiting until a customer threatens to move their mortgage before considering making them a better offer. Only at that point and only for certain customers do they then offer them a better deal to keep them. The message this sends to customers is that there is no reward for loyalty. Instead their loyalty is a means of subsidising the price of loans to new customers.

For challenger banks that have started from scratch, rather than from acquiring another business or a book of loans the jury is still out as to their attitude towards existing versus new customers. They have not yet been tested by a large volume of maturing customers and have not had the chance to demonstrate whether they really want to do banking differently from the incumbent banks.

However the challenger banks that have been spun off from another bank or have grown by acquiring mature mortgage or credit card books and have seen customers offers mature have had the chance to demonstrate that they are doing something different but have not taken it.

When the first base rate rise is announced customers will have the chance to judge the challenger banks by whether they pass on the full rise to savers. This will tell customers whether these challenger banks are really serious about taking on the legacy banks, genuinely have a different attitude towards treating their customers fairly, and are putting their money where their mouths are or whether it is all just marketing hype.