The big four banks are just not that into us

03 May 12 02:16PM EST
Post by Matt Levey  Matt Levey Google Plus
Australians need to take a reality check on our relationship with the big four banks. If we asked our friends, they would say we are showing signs of unhealthy co-dependency. That we are worth so much more than out-of-cycle interest rate increases and record profits, but still we stick around.

If our friends were brutally honest, they would tell us to face facts: the big four banks are just not that into us.

The Reserve Bank's latest rate cut suggests it sympathises. Its 0.5 per cent reduction in the cash rate feels like a wake-up call.

It comes after months when the major banks have gone their own way on interest rates, with ANZ becoming the de facto price setter through its own rates review on the second Friday of every month.

That meeting has already brought ANZ customers two out-of-cycle rate increases.

All of this shows arrogance in the way the big four banks treat us, as if they think we cannot possibly live without them.

To some extent, they are right. Banking is an essential service, and a healthy, competitive and profitable banking sector is crucial to our economy.

But there is a difference between healthy balance sheets and a belief that record profits must be pursued at all costs.

Choice has long thought Australians can do much better than the way the big four banks treat us, and there are signs consumers are starting to share that self-belief.

In February, we launched our Move Your Money campaign. Armed with a wheelbarrow of fake cash, we called on customers to look beyond the big four banks, switch and save.

As far as stunts go, it was right up there, but the message is worth its weight in gold. The big four banks need us just as much as we need them, and it's time we showed them some tough love.

In February, the month of the first out-of-cycle rate increases, Roy Morgan data showed customer satisfaction with the big four declined for the first time in almost a year, and the trend continued in March.

February also saw major banks lose ground in the mortgage market, with big gains to building societies and non-bank lenders.

As the big four banks decide how much of the latest RBA rate cut to pass on - none seem likely to pass on the full 0.5 per cent - they will try to work out how many customers will walk out the door.

They might rely on the fact many Australians think switching is too much hassle, or that there are no better deals out there, or feel safer and more secure with one of the big four.

These are very familiar arguments, and they're all wrong.

First, there is a world of competitive deals beyond the big four banks, whether it's home loans, transaction or savings accounts or credit cards.

For example, a visit to Choice's unbiased Compare, Ditch and Switch comparison tool shows tables of home loans a full percentage point lower than the average advertised by the big four.

Second, switching is easier than before. Mortgage exit fees were scrapped on new variable rate home loans last year and, from January, lenders have been required to provide fact sheets to compare home loans on request.

From July 1, there will also be a new one-step process for switching transaction accounts, making consumers more mobile.

Third, credit unions, building societies and smaller banks enjoy the same government deposit guarantee as the big four, meaning consumers can have confidence dealing with these institutions.

All of this means that if you're annoyed with your big-four bank, shop around. Go to Choice's Compare, Ditch and Switch and health check your home loan. Go to lenders' websites and download personalised fact sheets.

Also, it's not all about switching. One of the most powerful things you can do is contact your current provider and negotiate a better deal.

Chances are it's a lot more expensive to win a new customer than to keep a current one happy.

Finally, make sure you weigh up the costs and savings associated with leaving your current lender, including exit fees, establishment fees and lenders' mortgage insurance.

Breaking up with a big four bank can mean more than having your friends collect your records and a change of number, but there are also major benefits for those prepared to test the market.

The more of us who look beyond the big four, the more we will all benefit from a more competitive banking sector.

And a healthy dose of jealously might mean they recognise that putting customers first is also in the best interests of their shareholders.

A version of this article was published by the Herald Sun on 3 May 2012


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