Friday, 3 October 2014

The FCA is wrong to focus on account portability

The news that the FCA is to explore the move to full account portability as part of a review of current/checking account switching is disappointing as the FCA appears to be rushing to a solution without having really understood why customers are not switching their account providers at the levels that politicians and consumer lobbyists would like to see. The reason that these parties wish to see higher levels of switching is that they see this as an indicator of competition in the current account market which is dominated by the big five banks – Lloyds, Barclays, RBS, HSBC and Santander.

Customer switching has gone up by only 19% since 7 day switching was introduced

The FCA have been triggered into action by their disappointment at the low increase in the level of switching following the introduction of seven business day current account switching service introduced in October 2013. Despite the investment of $750m by the large banks in creating this guaranteed switching service levels of customer switching has gone up by only 19%.

The large banks have been the beneficiaries of switching

The irony is that the biggest beneficiaries of the account switching services have been Halifax (part of Lloyds Banking Group), Santander (one of the world’s largest banks), Nationwide Building Society and TSB (a Lloyds clone and still partially owned by the bank). With the exception of Nationwide, the account switching service has done little to change the market share of the major banks and even Nationwide has hardly changed the percentage.

The parallels between mobile phone numbers and account numbers are not valid

However for the FCA to jump to the conclusion that this is down to customers being reluctant to change their bank account number and therefore account portability will change this is both bizarre and illogical. Parallels are often made with the mobile phone industry where phone number portability has encouraged customers to switch between providers. However the use of phone numbers and bank account numbers are quite different. Whereas in order for telephone customers to be able to keep in contact with the hundreds and even thousands of people who have their number programmed into their phones keeping their mobile number when changing suppliers is essential the same cannot be said for bank account numbers.

Most bank customers have not memorised their bank account numbers. Once access to internet and mobile banking is set up a customer very rarely needs to know that number. When paying bills, transferring money, checking their balances, setting up or changing direct debits or standing orders there is no need for customers to know their bank account number. With the seven day switching services direct debits are transferred and guaranteed that if a problem occurs that the customer will be refunded for any charges occurred during the transfer process. With the increasing availability of P2P (Person to Person) mobile banking applications such as Pingit customers only need to know the mobile phone number of the person that they are transferring the money to (which is very likely to be stored in their phone) and don’t need to know the bank account details of the person that they are wanting to transfer money to. It is a fallacy to say that the reason people are not changing their bank accounts is because they don’t want to change their bank account number.

Customer interest in switching accounts is far lower than politicians and lobbyists

One of the primary reasons that is quoted despite the Seven Day Switching Service making it far easier for customers to switch current accounts is what politicians refer to as ‘customer apathy or inertia’. The reason that customers aren’t bothered is because for most customers banking really isn’t that interesting (until it goes wrong or they have a financial crisis), that the actual amount that they would save by switching from one bank to another is so minimal that it isn’t worth the effort and that they see one bank account much the same as another. To most customers banking services are a commodity and a largely undifferentiated one. They have better things to do with their lives than monitor whether one bank account is better than another.

There are significant numbers of providers of current accounts

The fact that the main beneficiaries of account switching have been the larger players is not because there is not a lot of choice in the market. Examples of organisations offering personal bank accounts include Nationwide Building Society, Tesco Bank, Marks & Spencer Bank, Metro Bank, Co-op Bank, Yorkshire Bank, Clydesdale Bank, Bank of Ireland (via the Post Office) and Handelsbanken.

The reason that Halifax, Santander, Nationwide, TSB and Metro Bank (though on a lot lower scale than the other four) have been successful in getting current account customers to switch to them is because of their attractive propositions whether it be paying interest on current account balances, discounts on utilities and other bills, convenience of branches or even offering dog biscuits. The fact that some of the most attractive propositions have come from the larger banks is because for most banks most personal current accounts are either loss leaders or have very low margins and therefore to be profitable in the current account market you need scale. That is very difficult and takes a lot of time to build from scratch as Metro Bank is finding.

Many of the so-called challenger banks e.g. Aldermore, Shawbrook, OneSavings Bank and Handelsbanken are not even attempting to engage in the personal current account market because of how unattractive it is financially. They would rather focus on the mortgage market or SME banking where the margins are higher and the cost to enter the market are far lower. As Virgin Money comes to the market it is based on the profits from mortgages and credit cards that the value will be attributed not current accounts.

The FCA is not focusing on the real issue

If the FCA is really interested in seeing greater competition in the current account market then rather than investigating a solution to a problem that doesn’t exist (customer only don’t switch because they don’t want to change their bank account number) then they should look at how to make it more attractive for the existing sub Big Five and new players to engage in the market with customer friendly banking propositions. It is only when there is significant differentiation between bank accounts in customers’ minds that switching volumes will become significant.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Please feel free to comment. Your opinion is important. All comments will be moderated before publication.