Should we end free banking?

Andrew Bailey presents a giant novelty £10 note to Sarah Darwin.
Andrew Bailey (R) presents a giant novelty £10 note to Sarah Darwin. Photograph: Getty Images

Andrew Bailey, the Bank of England's Executive Director, spoke today on the future of UK banking, and argued that we nede to tackle "the dangerous myth of free in-credit banking".

Bailey told the Westminster Business Forum that:

Free in-credit banking in this country is a dangerous myth. It is a myth because nothing in life is free; rather, it means that we pay for our banking services in ways that are hard to link to the costs of the products we receive. This can distort the supply of banking services. The dangers include that the pricing of banking to consumers varies too much depending on the services they use. I also worry that the banks may not properly understand the costs of products and services they supply. And I worry also that this unclear picture may have encouraged the mis-selling of products that is now causing so much trouble. In short, I think that the reform of retail banking in this country cannot move ahead unless we tackle the issue of free in-credit banking, and have a much better sense of what we are paying for and how we are paying.

Bailey is, of course, right that "free in-credit banking" is a myth. Almost every current account on the market pays zero, or close to zero, interest on accounts in credit, while inflation stands at 3.0 per cent. As a result, if you have a current account, you are in effect paying the bank close to 3 per cent of your deposit each year for the privilege.

It may even be, as Bailey suggests, a dangerous myth. After all, when the amount one is "paying" is contingent on the rate of inflation, it can be very difficult to keep track of what that actually is at any one point; in addition, many people don't have a full understanding of how inflation and interest rates combine, meaning that they do indeed think they are paying nothing at all for the service.

More importantly, the desire to extract extra profit from customers is a large part of what has led to the proliferation and inflation of bank charges. If a bank cannot charge customers a monthly fee for using their account, one way they get around it is by charging a fee for the sort of honest mistake which happens quite regularly; not only fees relating to overdrafts and rejected payments, but also returned letters, mistaken transfers, and suchlike.

But if his diagnosis is correct, I'm not so sure his cure is. While it is true that explicitly charging for accounts will allow banks to charge for their core services, rather than having to make most of their profit at the margin, it doesn't seem so clear that that will lead to better behaviour. Just this year, for instance, the Bank of America, which already charges fees for most services from its accounts such as withdrawals, transfers, and cheque cashing, attempted to introduce a $5 monthly fee for having a debit card.

Banks take advantage of the reluctance of customers to switch by nickle-and-diming on anything they can get away with. While they may find it easier to do so if the charges are less obvious, the last thing they need is state intervention to allow them to charge even more. Let  what little competition there it have the intended effect.