After capping legally dubious credit card penalty fees last year and labouring for six months on an informal inquiry into other cheque account penalties, the UK’s Office of Fair Trade overnight announced no quick fix is possible and a broader formal inquiry into bank fees is required.
That’s disappointed British consumer groups who expected the same sort of immediate cap on current account fees that was applied to credit cards. While the new inquiry is taking eight months, Which? reckons consumers will be charged another 3.5 billion quid in unauthorised fees.
A better reading of the situation would be that the OFT has realised it can’t clobber one end of the bank fee monster without having another set of jaws open up at the other.
Most importantly though, the watchdog is not retreating from the crux of the issue: penalty fees that have no or little relationship to costs incurred are legally unenforceable and ethically dubious. And that’s the issue that no Australian regulator wants to know about, let alone act on.
“The issue of bank current-account charges is a matter of real concern to the banks’ customers, and raises wider questions about competition and transparency of pricing,” said OFT chief executive John Fingleton. “The initial scoping work we have undertaken has demonstrated to us that this is not only an issue for those people who are being charged, but also for customers who are not defaulting on their bank accounts.”
Which basically means people who always pay their bills on time and never breach their overdraft limit are having the cost of their banking subsidised by those who do. That also tends to mean the poor are subsidising the rich.
British banks have a stay of execution, but profiteering on penalty fees still looks doomed there. Out of the OFT’s full inquiry, the UK is likely to get a more transparent and legally honourable system based on fee-for-service instead of whatever-skulduggery-banks-can-get-away-with.
But it will be gouging as normal for the Australian cartel, with individual customers left to go through the effort of demanding refunds.