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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Q&A: What are tax credits and how do they work?

All you need to know about the government's plan to cut tax credits.

What are tax credits?

Tax credits are payments made regularly by the state into bank accounts to support families with children, or those who are in low-paid jobs. There are two types of tax credit: the working tax credit and the child tax credit.

What are they for?

To redistribute income to those less able to get by, or to provide for their children, on what they earn.

Are they similar to tax relief?

No. They don’t have much to do with tax. They’re more of a welfare thing. You don’t need to be a taxpayer to receive tax credits. It’s just that, unlike other benefits, they are based on the tax year and paid via the tax office.

Who is eligible?

Anyone aged over 16 (for child tax credits) and over 25 (for working tax credits) who normally lives in the UK can apply for them, depending on their income, the hours they work, whether they have a disability, and whether they pay for childcare.

What are their circumstances?

The more you earn, the less you are likely to receive. Single claimants must work at least 16 hours a week. Let’s take a full-time worker: if you work at least 30 hours a week, you are generally eligible for working tax credits if you earn less than £13,253 a year (if you’re single and don’t have children), or less than £18,023 (jointly as part of a couple without children but working at least 30 hours a week).

And for families?

A family with children and an income below about £32,200 can claim child tax credit. It used to be that the more children you have, the more you are eligible to receive – but George Osborne in his most recent Budget has limited child tax credit to two children.

How much money do you receive?

Again, this depends on your circumstances. The basic payment for a single claimant, or a joint claim by a couple, of working tax credits is £1,940 for the tax year. You can then receive extra, depending on your circumstances. For example, single parents can receive up to an additional £2,010, on top of the basic £1,940 payment; people who work more than 30 hours a week can receive up to an extra £810; and disabled workers up to £2,970. The average award of tax credit is £6,340 per year. Child tax credit claimants get £545 per year as a flat payment, plus £2,780 per child.

How many people claim tax credits?

About 4.5m people – the vast majority of these people (around 4m) have children.

How much does it cost the taxpayer?

The estimation is that they will cost the government £30bn in April 2015/16. That’s around 14 per cent of the £220bn welfare budget, which the Tories have pledged to cut by £12bn.

Who introduced this system?

New Labour. Gordon Brown, when he was Chancellor, developed tax credits in his first term. The system as we know it was established in April 2003.

Why did they do this?

To lift working people out of poverty, and to remove the disincentives to work believed to have been inculcated by welfare. The tax credit system made it more attractive for people depending on benefits to work, and gave those in low-paid jobs a helping hand.

Did it work?

Yes. Tax credits’ biggest achievement was lifting a record number of children out of poverty since the war. The proportion of children living below the poverty line fell from 35 per cent in 1998/9 to 19 per cent in 2012/13.

So what’s the problem?

Well, it’s a bit of a weird system in that it lets companies pay wages that are too low to live on without the state supplementing them. Many also criticise tax credits for allowing the minimum wage – also brought in by New Labour – to stagnate (ie. not keep up with the rate of inflation). David Cameron has called the system of taxing low earners and then handing them some money back via tax credits a “ridiculous merry-go-round”.

Then it’s a good thing to scrap them?

It would be fine if all those low earners and families struggling to get by would be given support in place of tax credits – a living wage, for example.

And that’s why the Tories are introducing a living wage...

That’s what they call it. But it’s not. The Chancellor announced in his most recent Budget a new minimum wage of £7.20 an hour for over-25s, rising to £9 by 2020. He called this the “national living wage” – it’s not, because the current living wage (which is calculated by the Living Wage Foundation, and currently non-compulsory) is already £9.15 in London and £7.85 in the rest of the country.

Will people be better off?

No. Quite the reverse. The IFS has said this slightly higher national minimum wage will not compensate working families who will be subjected to tax credit cuts; it is arithmetically impossible. The IFS director, Paul Johnson, commented: “Unequivocally, tax credit recipients in work will be made worse off by the measures in the Budget on average.” It has been calculated that 3.2m low-paid workers will have their pay packets cut by an average of £1,350 a year.

Could the government change its policy to avoid this?

The Prime Minister and his frontbenchers have been pretty stubborn about pushing on with the plan. In spite of criticism from all angles – the IFS, campaigners, Labour, The Sun – Cameron has ruled out a review of the policy in the Autumn Statement, which is on 25 November. But there is an alternative. The chair of parliament’s Work & Pensions Select Committee and Labour MP Frank Field has proposed what he calls a “cost neutral” tweak to the tax credit cuts.

How would this alternative work?

Currently, if your income is less than £6,420, you will receive the maximum amount of tax credits. That threshold is called the gross income threshold. Field wants to introduce a second gross income threshold of £13,100 (what you earn if you work 35 hours a week on minimum wage). Those earning a salary between those two thresholds would have their tax credits reduced at a slower rate on whatever they earn above £6,420 up to £13,100. The percentage of what you earn above the basic threshold that is deducted from your tax credits is called the taper rate, and it is currently at 41 per cent. In contrast to this plan, the Tories want to halve the income threshold to £3,850 a year and increase the taper rate to 48 per cent once you hit that threshold, which basically means you lose more tax credits, faster, the more you earn.

When will the tax credit cuts come in?

They will be imposed from April next year, barring a u-turn.

Anoosh Chakelian is deputy web editor at the New Statesman.