Where to go when you don't trust your bank manager

Advice for SMEs.

Whether that business is large, small or part of the squeezed middle, there is little doubt that the fight to find and keep customers - and indeed to make money from them - is harder than it has been for a long time. One area where this is very evident is in the continuing struggle to access funds. Many owners of small and medium-sized businesses are still finding it difficult to get the funding they need from their bank.

The banks counter this criticism with a valid argument that the demand simply isn’t there and many would-be borrowers simply don’t want to take on more risk at a time of great uncertainty. Nevertheless, figures reporting the number of loan applications turned down suggest that the banks are still busy taking risk off their balance sheets and as a result are either refusing to lend at all or setting very high prices on their lending.

While it is clear that the banks are in a difficult position — castigated for being both too reckless and now for being too conservative — there are some very serious long-term implications from the apparent breakdown in relations between small business owners and the banks.

It wasn’t all that long ago when bank managers were the most valued and trusted advisors for those running small businesses. 

But as a recent survey (organised by Hitachi Capital Invoice Finance, which admittedly competes directly against banks to provide an alternative means of finance) shows, trust in bank managers is currently low. Only 21 per cent of SME owners questioned said they would trust advice from their bank manager. While it’s easy to dismiss the report’s findings as a PR exercise, they tally with other polls measuring the general public’s opinion of bankers (notably the Edelman’s Trust Barometer).

Put a group of business owners together in a room to talk about finance and it won’t be long before one or more bemoans the loss of personal banking relationships and the switch to centralised, call-centre style customer service. The days of a local branch manager having a close relationship with local businesses and being able to make appropriate lending decisions (possibly over a round of golf or a G&T) are gone. For some the more strategic overview of a regional risk committee makes more sense in the modern age. But while we all welcome that added professionalism, it’s difficult not to feel that something has been lost in translation. Many business owners would welcome a move back to a more responsive and locally aware banking system.

If business has lost trust in banks, what about other advisors? In his inaugural address in June ICAEW president Mark Spofforth made it clear that rebuilding trust in the accountancy profession was a major objective for his year in office.

“It worries me deeply that the profession I joined isn’t held in the same esteem that it was when I started out as a trainee”, he said, before adding that these concerns are shared by other qualified professionals.

On the evidence of this survey, things are already improving. Hitachi found that 43 per cent of respondents trust the advice they were given by accountants, a far higher score than for any other type of advisor. This is excellent news for a profession that has experienced considerable self-doubt in the wake of the financial crisis.

There is a long way to go, but the importance of such a key customer group being happy with the advice they get from accountants is underlined by further research from the technology company Portal. This piece of research was into the importance consumers place on service. It found that 52 per cent reported they would change supplier as a result of poor service. See a name and shame graphic listing some of the worst offenders.

If trust in the accountancy profession is to be built, then chartered accountants in firms of all size and shape will have to continue to provide excellent standards of service and to provide insightful and meaningful advice, especially to business clients. As Spofforth rightly pointed out in his inauguration address: “Trust has to be earned – and once lost it can take years to rebuild. It is fundamental to a well-run economy and to a properly functioning society. And it is a concern, a worry that only we as a profession can address.

"We need to show that we deserve people’s trust and we need to work hard to earn it.”

This article first appeared in economia.

Photograph: Getty Images

Richard Cree is the Editor of Economia.

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When Theresa May speaks, why don’t we listen?

Not many Prime Ministers have to repeat themselves three times. 

Theresa May is the candidate of Brexit and market panic. She ascended to the highest office because, in the fraught weeks after Britain’s vote to leave the European Union, she represented a safe haven for nervous Conservative MPs, the dependable family mutual that remained open while all along the Conservative high street, her rivals were shutting up shop.

Her popularity, as revealed in high poll ratings outside Westminster, too, owes itself to the perception that she is a serious politician in serious times, happily installed atop the ship of state to guide it through the rocky waters of Brexit negotiations.

May’s premiership has been defined by market panics of a different kind, however. The first is in the currency markets, where sterling takes a tumble whenever she pronounces on Britain’s future relationship with the European Union, falling both after her conference speech on 2 October and after her start-of-the-year interview with Sophy Ridge on 8 January. The second is in the opinion pages, where May’s stock oscillates wildly from bullish to bearish.

In the first months of May’s government, she was hailed as an Anglo-Saxon counterpart to Angela Merkel: a solid centre-right Christian democrat who would usher in a decade of conservative hegemony. More recently, she has been compared to Gordon Brown because of her perceived indecisiveness and repeatedly accused of failing to spell out what, exactly, her government’s Brexit objectives are.

In a symbol of the splits on the right between the Brexiteers and Remainers, the Economist, that bible of free-market globalisation and usually a reliable tastemaker as far as Westminster groupthink is concerned, began 2017 by dubbing the Prime Minister “Theresa Maybe”. Though May’s Downing Street is less concerned with the minutiae of what goes on in the public press than David Cameron’s, the contention that she is indecisive was a source of frustration.

There is an element of truth in the claim that May still views the world through a “Home Office lens”. One senior minister complains that Downing Street considers the Ministry of Justice as a “rogue outpost” of May’s old stomping ground, rather than a fully fledged department with its own interests and perspectives.

Yet even the most authoritarian of home secretaries would struggle to secure a conviction against May on the charge of opacity as far as her Brexit approach is concerned. She has hit the same grace notes with the reliability of a professional musician: Brexit means freedom from the jurisdiction of the European Court of Justice and control over Britain’s borders, two objectives that can only be achieved as a result of Britain’s exit not only from the EU but also the single market. This was confirmed on 17 January in the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech in London.

David Cameron used to say that he would never have “a people”. Certainly, there is no Cameroon tendency in the country at large to match the generation of council house residents that became homeowners and lifelong Conservatives because of Margaret Thatcher and Right to Buy. However, there is, unquestionably, a Cameroon people or faction to be found at almost every rung of London’s financial services sector or at editorial meetings of the Economist, though it as at the Times and the Sun where the treatment of May is at its most noticably rougher than in the Cameron era. 

Michael Gove, her old rival, is not only employed as a columnist by the Times; he enjoys the confidence and admiration of Rupert Murdoch. That the Times secured the first British interview with Donald Trump was a coup for Murdoch, an old associate of the president-elect, and for Gove, who conducted it. It left May in the unlovely position of making history as the first prime minister to be scooped to a first meeting with a new American president by a sitting MP in modern times. It also attested to a source of frustration among May’s allies that she is, for all her undoubted popularity, still ignored or doubted by much of the right-wing establishment.

That condescension partly explains why her words are often listened to briefly, acted on hastily and swiftly forgotten, hence the pound’s cycle of falling when she makes an intervention on Brexit and rising shortly thereafter. The Lancaster House speech was designed to break this pattern. Downing Street briefed the most potent paragraphs at the weekend so that the markets could absorb what she would say before she said it.

As a result, the pound rallied as May delivered her speech, which contained a commitment to a transitional deal that would come into effect after Britain has left the EU. Some financiers believe this arrangement could become permanent, which once again demonstrates how much they underestimate May’s ability to enforce her will.

Being underestimated by Cameron’s people, in Westminster and the City, has the unintended effect of shoring up Theresa May’s position. A prolonged and sustained bout of panic would increase the pressure for a soft landing, but its absence makes it harder for Labour to oppose her effectively, although it has largely acquiesced to the Tory plan for Brexit, at least as far as membership of the single market is concerned. 

Yet for all the plaudits that the Prime Minister’s Lancaster House speech attracted, for all her undoubted popularity in the country, she is in the anomalous position of being a Conservative Prime Minister who has priorities on the European stage other than the preservation of the City of London and to whom Rupert Murdoch is not a natural ally.

As such, she may find that her deadlier enemies come from the right.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.