Charlie Weston: Banks happy to play role of pantomime villain - for a fee
IF you thought the banks could not impose any more pain on already hard-hit consumers, then think again. For next year is set to become the year of the revenge of the bankers.
They and their crazy lending to delusional developers are largely responsible for crocking the country. They have extracted large dollops of taxpayers' cash to rescue them, a move that has meant taxes are rising for all of us.
And we have yet to see any of the top bankers responsible for the mess go to jail, while most of them have yet to lose a cent from their mega pensions.
Instead, banks like Bank of Ireland have been caught out paying their top staff bonus payments.
And now the same bank wants to further punish its taxpayer-cum-rescuers-cum-customers by forcing many of them to pay charges on their everyday banking transactions.
As reported exclusively in this newspaper yesterday, Bank of Ireland has admitted some of its customers will face fees and charges for the first time in the new year.
Current account holders who do not make at least nine payments every quarter will have fees imposed on them.
Additionally, from February 21, Bank of Ireland customers will have to have a minimum balance of at least €3,000 per quarter (or €1,000 a month) in their account to avoid fees.
But, significantly, not counted in the nine payments are direct debit and standing order payments.
Customers who do not meet the new criteria will be charged 28c for each transaction.
The majority of the bank's 1.2 million current account holders could end up being hit with the new fees.
Around a quarter of customers will not be affected as they hold 'Golden Years' or student accounts.
The bank pleaded yesterday that providing customers with current account facilities costs it money.
The changes have been criticised by the Consumers' Association, whose chief executive Dermott Jewell described the move as a slap in the face for consumers.
Now you can expect other banks to follow the lead of Bank of Ireland in making it extremely difficult for customers to avoid paying fees every three months to their bank for using a current account.
With a dwindling number of retail banks operating in this market, consumers are facing a squeeze on competition.
At the start of this year there were seven banks offering current accounts. But the closure of PostBank and Halifax this year -- both of which had competitive current accounts -- has darkened the competitive landscape.
Today the choice comes down to AIB, Bank of Ireland, Ulster Bank, National Irish Bank and Permanent TSB. And their offerings are becoming more expensive by the day.
It is all a far cry from three-and-a-half years ago when banks here first started to aggressively try to recruit current account customers.
Banks were prepared to lose money on current accounts on the basis that they could build up their customer base and then recoup the losses by selling other products like credit cards, mortgages and loans.
Halifax tried to persuade consumers to sign up to its current account by promising to "beat the bankers", with Permanent TSB using fictional Mafia characters to entice customers.
The only good thing is that people can still switch accounts, as the National Consumer Agency (NCA) was eager to stress yesterday.
Consumers who are with Bank of Ireland and fear they will end up paying fees to the bank would be wise to check out the NCA's website at itsyourmoney.com.
Ann Fitzgerald of the NCA warned that all offers of "free banking" on current accounts have some conditions attached. And if you do not meet these conditions you will have to pay transaction fees.
But the problem for consumers is that it is not easy to work out where the best value lies. A recent survey carried out by the European Commission found that Irish current accounts were less transparent than the European average, with more complex pricing structures.
If you end up with a cheque bouncing or have insufficient money in your account to meet a direct debit demand, you will see just how complex and expensive a current account in this country is.
And never mind arguing with the bank that you have been a good and profitable customer for years. Because the sad truth is that staying loyal to your bank does not pay.
Unfortunately, the new year heralds more nasty changes in transaction fee arrangements, higher standard variable mortgage rates and little new lending from our beleaguered banks.
There will also be charges for withdrawing money from ATMs, lodging cheques and for making payments.
Banking analyst with Dolmen Stockbrokers Oliver Gilvarry warned the era of free or no-fee banking is well and truly over.
Wherever banks can chase down fee income they will chase it down aggressively from here on in, he added.
In a sense it is back to the future as the old banking model of hefty fees and charges for every transaction is set to return.
It all means that the banks will continue to be the pantomime villains for a while yet.