Thank you Graeme Samuel. This past weekend, the ACCC chair was quoted as saying that the big banks’ action “borders on… misconduct” in the way they have been signalling their intention to increase interest rates. This is something that’s been bothering me for some time as well, and if I’d been a faster typist last week I may have beaten him to the punch on this very page.
The Big 4 have been publicly signalling their intentions for some time now, via statements from their PR people, in-house economists and their CEOs. These aren’t just signals to the public, or to the markets. These are signals to each other. Like Mr Samuel I’m not suggesting anything technically illegal here, but you don’t need to formally agree to fix prices to limit competition.
These signals received from each other through the public domain will very definitely impact the banks’ plans. Most banking observers will clearly remember the backlash from Westpac’s “almost double” rate rise in December 2009 (compounded by their banana smoothies analogy). And prior to that, July 2009 when Commonwealth Bank made a 10bp increase without any Reserve Bank moves and was berated by everyone from the PM down. But the banks will also recall April 2009 when all 4 majors failed to pass on the full RBA rate cuts. And they know that, if they act together or reasonably closely together, then the public reaction is a more generic bank bashing and not a PR nightmare targeted at any one of them. So these “I will if you will” signals are playing a very real part in the pricing deliberations within the banks. And that should concern anyone interested in genuine competition.
Competition is also the missing ingredient in the argument between the banks and everyone else about whether funding costs have genuinely risen. The point is not whether costs have gone up, but whether it necessarily follows that prices must go up too. The tone of the Big 4’s statements implies that it is their natural right to extract any cost increases directly from their customers. Of course it is a sensible business decision to attempt to recoup increased costs. But it is not automatic that it must be done. APRA and the RBA tell us that the banks are strong, so it is not necessary that they maintain margins for reasons of security. They are maintaining margins because they choose to and because they can. There is not enough pressure from customers and competitors to force them to make other choices. It is an oligopoly.
But it is more than that. It is an oligopoly that enjoys significant protection, via its central place in the economy and the benefits that flow from it – eg government guarantee on deposits in the GFC. There are other industries with the privilege of being protected oligopolies, but where the players are not allowed to exercise this kind of power without some restriction. Energy companies and health insurers spring immediately to mind: both of these have their pricing decisions heavily regulated. Perhaps the big banks should consider their position of privilege and treat it with respect, or they may find themselves subject to pricing restrictions of some kind. The Greens already have several policies relating to bank pricing regulation, on ATM fees for example. They are in a position to wield some influence. And wouldn’t the voters in the mortgage-belt marginal seats love it!
Customers do notice, and they do care. Mozo’s customer rate and review system saw a distinct reaction to the home loan rate rises in December 2009: Westpac’s interest rates went up 45bp and their customer ratings nosedived, ANZ and Commbank upped rates in the mid-30s and saw no real change to customer satisfaction, and NAB stuck to the RBA’s 25bp rise and extracted a small gain in how customers saw them. Homeowners may not have as many alternatives as they once did, and switching providers is still very time consuming, but there are cheaper providers. And the more the Big Banks erode their customers’ satisfaction, the more vulnerable they will become to challengers or regulators or both.
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