Should we end free banking?

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.

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

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

What price would the UK pay to stop Brexit?

The EU could end Britain's budget rebate and demand that we join the euro and the Schengen zone.

Among any group of Remain politicians, discussion soon turns to the likelihood of stopping Brexit. After Theresa May's electoral humbling, and the troubled start to the negotiations, those who oppose EU withdrawal are increasingly optimistic.

“I’m beginning to think that Brexit may never happen,” Vince Cable, the new Liberal Democrat leader, said recently. A growing number, including those who refuse to comment publicly, are of the same view. 

But conversation rarely progresses to the potential consequences of halting Brexit. The assumption that the UK could simply retain the status quo is an unsafe one. Much hinges on whether Article 50 is unilaterally revocable (a matter Britain might have been wise to resolve before triggering withdrawal.) Should the UK require the approval of the EU27 to halt Brexit (as some lawyers believe), or be forced to reapply for membership, Brussels would extract a price. 

Guy Verhofstadt, the European parliament’s Brexit co-ordinator, recently echoed French president Emmanuel Macron's declaration that “there is always a chance to reopen the door”. But he added: “Like Alice in Wonderland, not all the doors are the same. It will be a brand new door, with a new Europe, a Europe without rebates, without complexity, with real powers and with unity.”

The UK's £5bn budget rebate, achieved by Margaret Thatcher in 1984, has long been in the EU's sights. A demand to halt Brexit would provide the perfect pretext for its removal. 

As Verhofstadt's reference to “unity” implied, the UK's current opt-outs would also be threatened. At present, Britain (like Denmark) enjoys the right to retain its own currency and (like Ireland) an exemption from the passport-free Schengen travel zone. Were the UK to reapply for membership under Article 49 of the Lisbon Treaty, it would be automatically required to join the euro and to open its borders.

During last year's Labour leadership election, Owen Smith was candid enough to admit as much. “Potentially,” he replied when asked whether he would accept membership of the euro and the Schengen zone as the price of continued EU membership (a stance that would not have served Labour well in the general election.)

But despite the daily discussion of thwarting Brexit, politicians are rarely confronted by such trade-offs. Remaining within or rejoining the EU, like leaving, is not a cost-free option (though it may be the best available.) Until anti-Brexiteers acknowledge as much, they are vulnerable to the very charge they level at their opponents: that they inhabit a fantasy world. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.