Banks set to raise charges in fresh blow to customers
Ulster boss claims fees too low as he paves way for hike
THE head of one of the country's biggest banks has warned that charges for customers are too low and are set to rise significantly.
Ulster Bank chief executive Jim Brown told the Irish Independent that bank fees and charges on customer accounts should be increased by a total of €80m a year.
"My view is the amount charged in fees in the Republic is too low, and I expect you'll see upward movement," Mr Brown said.
If Ulster Bank increases its charges then it will pave the way for other major banks under similar financial pressure to do the same.
The comments from such a senior banker bear out fears about reduced competition in the Irish market, following the departure of ACC and Danske.
Mr Brown also warned that repossessions are set to rise further, having already shot up by 60pc last year.
He raised the spectre of more hikes after the bank's parent, Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), confirmed that it wants to retain Ulster Bank as a significant banking force on both sides of the Border. There has been a broad welcome for the decision, which followed a long-running strategy review that kicked off under new RBS boss Ross McEwen.
But it is not all good news. The bank will be smaller in the future and as well as higher charges, there will be a pick up in the rate of repossessions.
Routine bank charges can already add up to hundreds of euro per year for families.
Small businesses that handle a lot of cash can be charged thousands.
Ulster Bank has already introduced a €4-a-month charge for current account customers last year that hits anyone who fails to lodge at least €3,000 or keep a balance of €3,000 a month in their account.
Fees and bank charges currently account for 25pc of Ulster Bank's income, but Mr Brown said he expected that to increase to 33pc.
Based on last year's total Ulster Bank income of €1.026bn, it would see as much as €338m a year in fees charged to the bank's retail and business customers.
They might be charged for everything from using ATM machines to account charges, and fees for transactions such as loans and transfers.
Customers increasingly face charges of varying levels from their cash-strapped banks.
AIB charges €4 a quarter and up to 39c per transaction unless €2,500 is kept in the account at all times.
Bank of Ireland requires a credit balance of €3,000 at all times to avoid transaction charges of up to 40c each.
But even if €3,000 is kept in the account, it has been charging a maintenance fee of €5 a quarter since August.
State-owned Permanent TSB offers fee-free banking once €1,500 is lodged to the account every month.
Meanwhile, Ulster Bank announced an operating loss of £1.46bn (€1.78bn) for 2013, but said its mortgages arrears have fallen for 10 successive months.
The end of the mortgage crisis is still a number of years away, Mr Brown said.
Ulster Bank repossessed 136 homes last year compared to 84 in 2012. An increasing number of potential cases are now also being brought through the court system by the bank.
"We do expect repossession numbers to increase," he added.
Fears that a major programme of job cuts would be announced yesterday proved unfounded.
A target to reduce staff numbers to 4,500 over the next "three to four" years has not changed, Mr Brown said.
Employee numbers will fall from the current 5,800 over time, as fewer staff are needed to deal with the fallout from boom-era lending, he told this newspaper.
There was a muted welcome for news of the bank's commitment to remaining in Ireland from the Irish Bank Officials Association (IBOA) trade union that represents many of the bank's staff, though it fears branch closures and further restructuring are on the way.