Bank Fees: Banking on silence

March 26, 2009

From Wikileaks, republished from the Financial Mail.

The competition commission has allowed banks to spin the report of its inquiry into charges

Secrecy hardly ever works, said former US politician Newt Gingrich, and it absolutely never works when it’s used “in defence of dumbness”.

This seems to apply to the imbroglio that has resulted in the competition commission spitting fire at website Wikileaks for publishing the uncensored version of a 590-page report of the commission’s banking inquiry.

Little wonder, given that the uncensored version reflects poorly on the commission itself and contradicts the theory that the banks are “open and transparent” with the public.

The report from the inquiry, headed by Thabani Jali, was the final outcome of two years of hearings into how banks set fees. Its sweeping proposals, which could save consumers R1bn/year, include capping penalty fees at R5 and overhauling the way banks charge ATM fees.

The report emerged just before Christmas, but there were big blacked-out chunks that were excised at the request of the banks. Thanks to Swedish website Wikileaks, the public now know that most of the excised portions were blacked out to protect the banks from public anger, rather than for true reasons of “confidentiality”.

Take this excerpt, blacked out at Absa’s request: “All the major banks assert that penalty fees, including fees for rejected debit orders, are readily avoidable by the customer by… keeping enough money in their accounts to meet any debit orders they choose to sign.”


  • Banks censored report for PR reasons
  • Wikileaks will lay charges if the source is hunted


But what could be the justification for censoring that statement, other than to prevent consumers finding out what the banks really believe, public relations aside?

As Jali’s panel said: “This fails to take account of social reality, a little like Marie Antoinette saying, ‘Let them eat cake!'”

Absa also claimed “confidentiality” over this statement: “It is evident that Absa failed to pass on… cost savings to any significant extent to its customers by way of price reductions, choosing instead to retain most of these savings as profits.”

Absa asked for no less than 69 excisions. FNB asked for 74, Nedbank 46 and Standard Bank 29.

So the real question is, how could the commission have agreed to censor the report in a way that now makes them look complicit in massaging the facts to suit the banks?

Competition commissioner Shan Ramburuth concedes that the leaked report now reflects poorly on his organisation and the banks.

“Why did the competition commission accept some of the requests to make it confidential? We did it for the sake of progress, to get this thing out there without further delays,” he says.

Ramburuth says that when faced with the requests to black out information from the banks’ lawyers, it became difficult to determine what was genuinely confidential.

First National Bank CEO Michael Jordaan admits the bank’s lawyers were perhaps overcautious.

“We never saw the report, only our lawyers did. Lawyers do what they think is in the client’s best interest, and you know what they’re like: if they see anything they vaguely don’t like, they’ll just take it all out,” he says.

For much of the inquiry, FNB was seen as the shining light of transparency, willing to assist the inquiry at every turn. The leaked report seriously tarnishes this image.

For example, FNB asked this statement to be excised: “Standard Bank and FNB have also enjoyed an increased number of transactions, unit cost savings and increased profits, without using these as an opportunity to mount a vigorous challenge to their rivals by way of price competition.”

This appears to be the inquiry’s conclusion. So why should it be excised under the guise of being “confidential”?

“Because it is factually inaccurate,” says Jordaan. “As liberal as we were, there’s always the risk that this information can be used legally. So we can’t afford to let these kinds of incorrect assumptions through.”

Though it is clear that Absa asked for a large amount of excisions, Absa GM for pricing Keith McIvor disputes that this was out of line with the other banks.

“Our lawyers said that in the initial parts of the report we did make more requests than others but, on balance, our legal team says all the banks claimed confidentiality equally,” he says.

McIvor said the leak was “disappointing”, especially as the bank voluntarily co-operated fully and went through a lengthy confidentiality process.

Peter Schlebusch, Standard Bank CEO for personal and business banking, says the bank’s claims of confidentiality had nothing to do with “trying to position ourselves from a public relations perspective”.

But in some instances it seems farcical.

For example, at the hearings Standard Bank openly discussed the findings of research from Genesis which showed the cost for customers of switching accounts between banks.

This showed that for Mzansi customers, the cost of switching accounts was R8,63 – 8% of their average annual R111 bank fees. For E Plan customers, this cost was R21,92 – 6% of their R374 annual bank charges.

Yet in the final report, it requested that this information, which it had already publicly disclosed, be blacked out, as it was “confidential”.

Schlebusch admits this was an “error”.

“In the complex process of sorting out the confidential information, we claimed confidentiality in respect of information that was already in the public arena,” he says.

Interestingly, the competition commission didn’t agree with Genesis’s analysis, saying it excluded certain key costs, so it did its own. This put the switching costs at 35% for an Mzansi customer (R39,18), 29% (R108,45) for an E Plan customer and 29% (R543) for a Prestige account.

Yet Standard Bank requested this be kept confidential, too. This seems iniquitous. Surely the public should know the real costs of switching accounts.

Absa, Nedbank and FirstRand have prohibited their staff from looking at the uncensored report. Curiously, Standard Bank hasn’t issued any such ban.

Nedbank CEO Tom Boardman says it would be wrong to allow the reading of the report. “I’d love to know what it costs the other banks to process a transaction, for example. But our position is that it’s not appropriate to read confidential details like that in a leaked report.”

But Jordaan says the commission could face legal claims over this leak.

“If a bank were to suffer losses because their confidential information was compromised, they might have a damages claim against the commission,” he says.

Ramburuth responds: “Look, we took every reasonable precaution, but something went wrong, and when the uncensored version was revealed, we did everything to limit the damage.”

The commission requested Wikileaks to remove the uncensored report, but Wikileaks told it to take a hike.

Wikileaks said if SA investigators tried to expose the source of the leak, they could face “criminal sanctions for spying on journalist-source communications [under Sweden’s Press Freedom Act]”.

Unfortunately, the uproar over what was censored threatens to cloud the incisive conclusions of Jali’s panel, which reached findings that were anything but complimentary to the banks.

Besides making 28 recommendations, the panel said “competition has not been effective in constraining the banks from keeping prices above competitive levels over a significant period of time”.

The ill-conceived effort by the banks to spin the message, and the willingness of the commission to let them, is an unfitting postscript for Jali and his panel.

First appeared in Financial Mail Thanks to Rob Rose and FM for covering these documents. Copyright remains with FM.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: