First we’re told that the age of “free banking” is drawing to a close, now the banks themselves have been warned that the so-called good old days are behind them.

The Financial Services Authority has really laid it on quite thick with the rather ominous assessment that the “clouds are already darkening” over the banking industry. The sector needs to act swiftly to prepare itself for the impact of rising unemployment and spiralling debt (,,1948961,00.html), it also warns. 

More importantly, as far as the customers are concerned perhaps, the regulator has raised the issue of mortgages based on up to five times income and whether sales of these products would be monitored properly.

The banks have enjoyed an easy run of it after a few teething troubles following deregulation in the 1980s. I would stop short of suggesting they’ve had a licence to print money, mainly because it is such a bad pun, but some would argue that it does accurately sum up the relationship most of us have with our banks.

Analysts are predicting that the announcement earlier this week that First Direct, the telephone banking arm of HSBC, is to introduce a £10 monthly charge on current accounts which don’t meet strict criteria is a precursor to an industry-wide shift towards scrapping free banking. Some have even referred to First Direct as a sacrificial lamb, the industry’s way of testing the waters before the major players dare to dip their toes in.

Of course, if First Direct doesn’t sink and customers stay put then we can probably expect the banks to dive in head first at the first opportunity.

There is a certain symmetary in the figures quoted by First Direct in relation to other recent announcements and doom-laden statements.

If you fail to keep a balance of £1,500 in your current account or your salary does not exceed £1,500 a month then the £10 charge will be levied by First Direct.

Could this be the same £1,500 that couples earning £50,000 a year will have to pay in monthly installments on a five-time salary mortgage of £250,000 now being offered by Abbey?

In the summer we were told that the level of extreme debt – those people owing £100,000 or more – has risen significantly in just the last 12 months.

Yet the banks, building societies and financial industry continue to come up with new ways of increasing our level of indebtedness. The FSA recently criticised one company for sending out credit card cheques with various amounts pre-printed on them. All the customer had to do was sign their name and, hey presto, instant money.

Not free money, obviously. There is always a price to pay and these days that seems to be getting higher and higher.

The good old days for the banks might well be drawing to a close but we’ve never really been that lucky, have we?

So as the banks look for new revenue opportunities, we just have to sit and wait to see what other changes we’re likely to face.

At least we’ll be safe in the knowledge that, as far as the banks are concerned, the customer always comes first. 


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