Headlines were made yesterday when Westpac announced it will charge interest on interest charges and fees on all its credit card accounts, starting in June. While media commentators and consumer groups savaged the bank, and the Treasurer labelled it a “serial offender”, the new charges are more or less standard practice — at least among the big banks. So why all the fuss?
On the one hand, as Westpac itself points out, the changes will have a “tiny effect on balances”, apparently 67 cents a month for those affected. Moreover, Westpac is simply coming into line with the other Big 4s – so why single it out for being a late adopter of minimal charges?
The problem is that, at the end of the day, it is another tricksy initiative: fiddling with the fine print to raise revenue without altering the headline rate. And if the net result is in fact tiny, is it really worth the media storm that’s now engulfed the bank?
You have to think Westpac’s PR department has either had a really big St Patrick’s Day or been taken hostage by the bean counters. Consumer sentiment towards Australia’s largest home loan lender is at an all-time low, following its 45 basis point rate rise in December and the subsequent smoothie-fueled furore. Gail Kelly’s leaked comments about rising funding costs – and possible interest rate hikes of a further 30 to 40 basis points – have hardly helped. And profits are already up a third on the previous year, while Westpac was awarded the double-edged title of “World’s most profitable bank” by the famed Boston Consulting Group.
Justifying new charges in a general banking climate of fee cuts is a difficult proposition. At the same time, slamming a bank for catching up to its peers on a minor new charge is more media stunt than serious consumer advocacy.
Stay tuned for our wrap up of sneaky credit card fees — who’s leading the charge, and who simply has bad PR.
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