Hidden charges: the next big scandal for banks?

The high cost of banks' lack of transparency.


If there’s one thing that the banks have probably had enough of, it’s talk of transparency. After all, their recent run-ins with transparency have been largely unwelcome and revealed some hideous schemes – LIBOR-rigging, for example, and the mis-selling of PPI and interest-rate insurance. No wonder they fear daylight.

In many senses, they’re not in the clear yet. Banks and investment management companies are mysterious, opaque and occasionally downright deceptive about the fees they charge to wrangle your money. One woman is as mad as hell about it and isn’t going to take it any more.

Gina Miller, who with her husband, Alan, runs SCM Private, a wealth management firm, has commissioned a survey as part of her True and Fair Campaign, which shows that 92 per cent of people think that investment managers should be legally obliged to provide information about charges.

Gina has spoken out angrily: “It is completely indefensible that two-thirds of people buying investment products do not know how much they are paying in fees and charges.

“But what is worse is the fact that while we call for transparency and 100 per cent disclosure, the industry continues to hide under a thin rhetorical veil promising more disclosure, not full disclosure, and wraps itself in opaque, ill-defined guidelines.”

The government has already gone to certain lengths to try to ensure transparency with its Retail Distribution Review. Investment managers no longer get paid by the people whose products they sell (a clear inducement to favour those who pay more, not whose products are better) but rather by clients. Clients should never not know what they’re paying.

Yet Gina Miller goes beyond this, to hidden fees and charges from the manager: half a per cent to use foreign currencies here, vastly inflated fees to execute trades there.

This may seem like an issue affecting the few – and who has more sympathy for them? As the True and Fair website points out, however, anyone with savings or a pension is likely to be subject to these sneaky fees, too.

Could fees and charges be the next big scandal for the banks? It’s unlikely – the behaviour is bad, not criminal – but they certainly hurt many people and the more light shone on them, the better for us all.

Fee-fi-fo-fum: banks' fees remain opaque and confusing. Photograph: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images

Josh Spero is the editor of Spear's magazine.

Photo: Getty Images
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Autumn Statement 2015: George Osborne abandons his target

How will George Osborne close the deficit after his U-Turns? Answer: he won't, of course. 

“Good governments U-Turn, and U-Turn frequently.” That’s Andrew Adonis’ maxim, and George Osborne borrowed heavily from him today, delivering two big U-Turns, on tax credits and on police funding. There will be no cuts to tax credits or to the police.

The Office for Budget Responsibility estimates that, in total, the government gave away £6.2 billion next year, more than half of which is the reverse to tax credits.

Osborne claims that he will still deliver his planned £12bn reduction in welfare. But, as I’ve written before, without cutting tax credits, it’s difficult to see how you can get £12bn out of the welfare bill. Here’s the OBR’s chart of welfare spending:

The government has already promised to protect child benefit and pension spending – in fact, it actually increased pensioner spending today. So all that’s left is tax credits. If the government is not going to cut them, where’s the £12bn come from?

A bit of clever accounting today got Osborne out of his hole. The Universal Credit, once it comes in in full, will replace tax credits anyway, allowing him to describe his U-Turn as a delay, not a full retreat. But the reality – as the Treasury has admitted privately for some time – is that the Universal Credit will never be wholly implemented. The pilot schemes – one of which, in Hammersmith, I have visited myself – are little more than Potemkin set-ups. Iain Duncan Smith’s Universal Credit will never be rolled out in full. The savings from switching from tax credits to Universal Credit will never materialise.

The £12bn is smaller, too, than it was this time last week. Instead of cutting £12bn from the welfare budget by 2017-8, the government will instead cut £12bn by the end of the parliament – a much smaller task.

That’s not to say that the cuts to departmental spending and welfare will be painless – far from it. Employment Support Allowance – what used to be called incapacity benefit and severe disablement benefit – will be cut down to the level of Jobseekers’ Allowance, while the government will erect further hurdles to claimants. Cuts to departmental spending will mean a further reduction in the numbers of public sector workers.  But it will be some way short of the reductions in welfare spending required to hit Osborne’s deficit reduction timetable.

So, where’s the money coming from? The answer is nowhere. What we'll instead get is five more years of the same: increasing household debt, austerity largely concentrated on the poorest, and yet more borrowing. As the last five years proved, the Conservatives don’t need to close the deficit to be re-elected. In fact, it may be that having the need to “finish the job” as a stick to beat Labour with actually helped the Tories in May. They have neither an economic imperative nor a political one to close the deficit. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.