Banks that scrap short term special introductory rates on products for customers, while they position this as for the benefit of existing customers are not simply being altruistic. They are doing this because they know that by adopting a customer- rather than a product-centric approach to running their bank there can be a significant improvement in the long term profitability of their businesses.
Over the past few years there has been a significant price war in the 0% Balance Transfer (BT) credit card market. As one competitor has extended the length of the 0% interest period by one month the next has extended it a further month. Six months ago the market thought that no one would go further than a 28 month (2 years three months) period but it has now got to the point where Barclaycard is offering a 31 month interest free period. It could be argued that this is really good news for customers as fierce competition is driving better deals for consumers. However what is interesting to note is that the top three places in the BT card table are all being offered by one of the Big Four banks - Barclays, HSBC and Lloyds Banking Group. With their very large deposit and current account bases they have large amounts of low cost money to lend which they, it could be said, are using to keep other competitors out, particularly the smaller players who have to resort to the wholesale markets to fund these loans. By extending the periods so long it makes it too expensive for smaller players to compete.
But why are the big banks so keen to lend customers money apparently free for so long? There is of course an up front a fee based on a percentage of the balance being paid - in the case of Barclaycard it is 3.5% which is reduced to 2.99% by a refund (nothing like simplicity!). What this gives the banks offering these products is short term fees, which, with interest rates being so low, fee income is particularly important for short term profits. None of the banks that offers these products has a competitive APR (Annual Percentage Rate) for additional transactions. The banks also know that these are customers who do not pay off their credit cards every month otherwise they would not have got a balance to transfer in the first place. Until recent regulation came into place forcing banks to pay off the most expensive debt first (in this case the new transactions not the 0% balance) this was almost a licence for banks to make money as every payment customers made was used to pay off the 0% balance meaning every new tranaction that was rolled over the month end would continue to rack up high interest rate charges. Even with the change in legislation, whilst these cards are positioned as a way for customers to pay off their debts, the banks concerned are certainly hopeful that their customers will continue to use their credit cards accruing the bank interchange and other fees for every transaction as well as building a large balance for when the 0% interest rate expires.
The problem with BT customers is that they have had the nous to transfer the balance for a 0% period. This means that they are likely to be price conscious and therefore when the next good deal comes along or when their free period ends some of them are likely to be off again to the next bank or credit card company offering a good deal. Others are likely to rack up debts that they cannot afford and go into arrears. For a bank that is looking to develop long term mutually profitable relationships with its customers the majority of these are the wrong type of customers. These are not customers who are looking to or have the money to take out other products from the bank. Banks who offer these types of products are, on the whole, product-centric. Banks who the only credit card they offer is a Balance Transfer is not customer centric.
Moving onto the removal of teaser rates from savings products. The primary reason banks offer short term attractive rates is to build volumes of deposits in order to be able to lend the money out to other customers in the form of a loan or mortgage. It is also a way of raising the brand of the bank by getting it into the best price tables, on the first screen of the aggregator websites such as Moneysupermarket.com and getting it mentioned by Money Savings Expert Martin Lewis. However being successful at doing this can have at least two downsides. Firstly the bank can end up with more low or no margin deposits than it has the demand to lend which leads to losses and secondly it attracts price sensitive customers aka, price tarts. The problem with price tarts, as the name implies, is that as soon as the introductory rate expires they will be off taking their money and giving it to the next bank that has decided to get offer a teaser rate. Just like the with Balance Transfer Card these are not the types of customers that a long term profitable bank should be built upon. With both product strategies it is a case of quantity being sacrificed for quality and taking a product perspective over a customer one.
However it would be wrong to think that there are no downsides to a strategy that strictly adheres to the principle that existing customers should never be disadvantaged over new customers. In 2001 Nationwide Building Society, under the previous CEO, introduced a policy that all its mortgage offers would be made available to both new and existing customers. It resulted in retaining a higher proportion of its mortgage customers than other banks but with significantly impacted profitability. Nationwide has moved away from that purist implementation to a more pragmatic approach. It doesn't seek to be in the top of the price tables for its products but rather it seeks out customers that are looking for a long term relationship with the building society as its Save to Buy offering for first time buyers illustrates. The result has been a very significant growth in profitable business.
Ross McEwen sees the turnaround of RBSG as taking at least another five years. The announcements of the changes to the retail product strategy will potentially have a negative short term effect for the retail bank, but in terms of moving RBSG towards being a customer centred bank these are sensible steps as long as the shareholders and other interested parties have the patience to see them through. What he has recognised is that 0% cards and teaser rates have no role to play in a customer centric bank.