Wednesday, 6 August 2014

Creating competition in retail banking

With the recommendation by the UK CMA (Competition and Markets Authority) to conduct a review of competitiveness in the current account banking market, what are some of the areas that they may consider to increase competitiveness?

Breaking up the banks. This is the Labour party’s big idea - creating a set of competitor banks by splitting the big banks. The primary focus for this would be the Royal Bank of Scotland and Lloyds Banking Group. However this isn’t a new idea and is already being tested with the creation of TSB from Lloyds Banking Group and Williams & Glyn’s from RBS. However already there are lessons to be learnt from this process.

While there was initial interest from a number of players the list of serious bidders rapidly shortened when the complexity, the capital required and the price being sought became clear. The initial two successful bidders the Co-op (Lloyds) and Santander (RBS) after lengthy negotiations and detailed planning withdrew their bids.

Separating the bank’s technology whether cloning (TSB) or migrating to a new platform is proving to be enormously complex and very expensive.

The payback period is very long and without the subsidy and support of the selling bank would be even longer. TSB for instance does not expect to break even for many years and that is despite being helped by Lloyds lending the new bank a book of loans.

While breaking up the banks will mean that there are more places to have a current account there is no guarantee that this will ensure better deals for customers, particularly given that the easiest option for the broken up banks is to be clones of the original banks just simply without the scale advantages. With little to differentiate them having more players in the market doesn’t result in real consumer benefit.

Creating a payments utility separate from the big banks. One of the often heard complaints from new entrants is that the big banks have an advantage because they own the payments infrastructure and the cost for new entrants to use that infrastructure is a barrier to entry. One option would be to create a separate payments utility not owned by the banks. However that does not mean that it will necessarily be cheaper for new entrants. For a start there is the cost of acquiring and separating the infrastructure from that of the banks that currently own it which would need to be paid by customers of the utility. There is also the question of how to charge for the use of this utility. The charge would need to reflect the significant cost of running, maintaining and investing in modernising the infrastructure – it is not simply the cost of using the infrastructure because otherwise what is the incentive for whoever ends up owning the infrastructure to invest in it to make it not only continually available but also suitable for new innovations as they come along? Commercial reality dictates that for banks with high transaction volumes that cost per transaction should be lower.

Portable bank account numbers. Many of the challenger banks are supportive of the concept of portable bank account numbers. They look at the mobile phone industry and see the way that customers can take their phone numbers with them. However before recommending this change the CMA needs to research just how big an inhibitor to switching bank accounts for customers is the change of account number. Given the Seven Day Switching Service where the banks guarantee no interruption to direct debits and standing orders and given the limited numbers of times customers actually have to know their account number in order to transact, would portable bank account numbers really open the floodgates of customers switching bank account numbers?

Ending ‘free when in credit’ banking. In the UK customers have got used to so-called ‘free banking’ where as long as a customer remains in credit, whilst they get little or nothing for the balance that they retain, they don’t pay charges. A number of the challenger banks have complained that this gives the incumbent banks an advantage as it is difficult (but not impossible) to compete on price and because it gives banks offering current accounts a distinct advantage over those who don’t in terms of the low cost of all those balances when it comes to lending. It will take a brave politician to move to compel the end of free banking. Of course to attain transparency then the cost of each transaction e.g. cost of an ATM withdrawal, the cost of paying in a cheque, the cost of a direct debit, etc, would need to be made clear to customers and, the challengers would argue, that that would enable customers to choose between banks. However looking at a market where this is the way banking is conducted, Australia, then not only is there a greater concentration of current accounts held with the Four Pillars (Nab, Westpac, CBA and ANZ) than with the equivalents in the UK, but Australian banks are amongst the most profitable retail banks in the world. Despite that there are not lots of new entrants fighting to get a slice of the pie. For customers Australia is also one of the most expensive countries to bank. It would appear that ending ‘free banking’ alone would not solve the perceived competition problem.

Set a maximum market share for current accounts. On paper this would appear to be the solution. The big banks could be given a period of time over which they must reduce their share of the market to for instance to no more than 15% of the market each leaving the challenger banks to fight over the remaining 40%. The banks would need to be told the mix of customers they must dispose of, just as Lloyds was instructed for the disposal of TSB. However what does this do for consumer choice? Not all customers were happy to be told that they were moving from Lloyds to TSB without an option. Given that the CMA investigation is about creating competition and making it easier for customers to switch banks this does not appear to be the solution.

Make it even easier for new challengers to enter the market. Measures have already been put in place to reduce the capital required, shorten the process and allow challenger banks time to grow into being a full scale bank. The benefits of this are already being seen with the likes of Atom Bank being announced. It is difficult to see what more could be done in this area.

Make retail banking more profitable to encourage more new entrants. There is little chance of this being one of the recommendations of the CMA. The reality is that with increased regulation, increased scrutiny and rising costs for compliance retail banking is becoming less and less attractive a sector for investors. As JC Flowers have recently remarked with Returns on Equity going from double to single digits there are more attractive sectors to look at investing in.

Is the CMA looking to solve a problem that customers don’t see as a priority? With the advent of Seven Day Switching the number of customers changing banks has risen – over one million customers have chosen to do that. The biggest beneficiaries have been TSB, Santander and Nationwide Building Society. There more than a handful of challenger banks out there – Tesco, Marks & Spencer, Metro Bank, Co-op Bank, Handelsbanken, Aldermore and others with current accounts on the way – amongst them Atom Bank and Virgin Money. Despite that the market share of the large high street banks hasn’t changed significantly. The question is why aren’t customers changing banks? Is it simply because they see banking as a utility, that each of the banks are pretty much the same, that for most customers (unlike bankers, politicians, financial journalists and consumer champions) banking doesn’t enter their consciousness unless they have a bad experience. In the grand scheme of things for most customers they have far more important issues to think about than whether they should switch their bank accounts.

Perhaps it is time that the CMA focused on something of more day to day importance to consumers.

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