Friday, 10 July 2015

Of Banks in Babylon

Some banks are lovely.  How about this one for instance?

Gratuitous waterscape picture

If, however, we are talking about financial institutions I can only confess that I hate banks.  I hate the smug expectation that everyone should have a bank account and that if we don't there is something wrong with us or we have to live with the unbelieving looks of others and the implication that we have committed some criminal or social misdemeanour.  I admit that my loathing of banks is nowadays firmly rooted in the mess they have made of their affairs in recent years and the way they have held us all to ransom as they expect us and governments (using our money) to dig them out of the holes in which they have buried themselves - but that is not what this rant is about.

I was one of those stupid loyal customers.  I banked with one of the major banks for about forty years.  I opened my account when I left school and took my first job.  I worked for a firm of cleaners and builders in London and we were paid weekly by cheque.  Most of the other employees took their cheques to the nearest bank and cashed them.  I thought a bank account would help me feel more grown up and I had plans to stop working in a year or two's time and go to college.  In those days we had "grants", so I would need a bank account for when that time came.  I didn't fancy the idea of a Barclays account like my parents (and my employer), because of the South African connections - we boycotted anything we thought might support apartheid in those days - so I walked into a National Westminster Bank in the dark streets between Soho and Marylebone and opened my account.

We had our ups and downs.  My downs mainly consisted of my below zero total once I started college and continued when I qualified to start work as a teacher.  The ups were mainly their charges for me going overdrawn.  Still, we worked it out.  Every few years I'd be asked to come in and discuss my account with a manager or some other designated lacky.  They'd come up with some incomprehensible plan to put all my debts in one basket, which would somehow save me money.  Occasionally I would have money in the account at the end of the month, but they didn't seem to mind too much because the next month's pay cheque would usually clear any overdraft and the credit card and we could start again.  They were making a small fortune from me in bank and interest charges too.  Many years later I began to hover mostly around the break even point and the pressure was off.

Over the years I had some unfortunate encounters.  Probably the most embarrassing was when I made an appointment to see my branch manager to ask about a mortgage.  At the appointment he looked at my income and laughed.  He thought I was joking.  It was embarrassing, but I was relieved.  For some inexplicable reason my old-Labour father-in-law was delighted when Thatcher's government made it possible for the working classes to buy their council houses.  He was very proud to take advantage of it.  I found his joy puzzling.  From the outset I wondered where the next generation would be housed if all the housing stock were sold off.  F-i-L was very insistent that I become part of the evil one's property-owning democracy.  Our Mormon sized family was housed in a five-bedroomed semi in Hertfordshire.  It was a nice house and I considered myself lucky to able to rent such a place.  I didn't want to buy a council house and see it made unavailable to anyone in the future who might be in circumstances similar to my own.  I was pleased when I could report back that I had been told there was no chance of a mortgage.

More decades rolled by and, following the banking crash, scandal followed scandal in the banking world.  My bank of choice was caught up in some of the uglier shenanigans, but I stuck with them admittedly mostly through customer inertia.  What eventually broke this camel's back, though, was the refusal of the bank manager (who knew my honourable and honest banking history through decades of experience) to be prepared to underwrite a very short term loan if part of my late father's bequest failed to become available in time.  I'll tell the whole story one day, but after living with my father for eight years I was being given two days' notice to quit the house he had bought and paid for and we had shared before he succumbed to the cancer through which I had been caring for him.  I didn't want to lose the substantial deposit I had paid on the thirty-year-old boat I was planning as my next home.  The bank manager seemed to be deliberately obtuse.  He would not see I needed a short-term assurance and insisted I take out a loan I didn't think I needed.  Then he looked again at my income and said he couldn't lend me the money anyway, despite my expectation of an amount coming my way which would cover the loan, clear all my other loans and leave me with a bit over.  I determined at that point to grit my teeth and change my account.  I was attracted to the "ethical" policies of another bank and opened personal and business accounts and after some months the changeover began to smooth over.  Don't believe anyone who claims to be able to help you change banks in a fortnight.  The new and ethical bank became a disappointment very, very quickly.  I could not believe that after forty years I had jumped out of the frying pan and into the proverbial fire.  Mismanagement, drugs scandals, the loss of vast sums of money and the enforced sale of other parts of the profitable aspects of their business began to fill the news soon after my accounts had settled into place.  How do I do it?

But that's not what I wanted to write about.  I just get sidetracked easily.

I am so frustrated with online banking with my "new" bank that I am tempted to reopen my old accounts with the unethical bank.  Rarely, if ever, did my old bank's website freeze on me.  The new one does it nearly every session - whichever browser I use.  My old bank showed a synopsis of the totals of all my accounts on a home page.  Looking at the detail involved a single click on the account name.  The new bank treats business and personal accounts as though they were different companies.   The log-on procedures for each are completely different and the details can only be seen in different windows.  One uses account details and passwords.  The other uses customer numbers and a code generated by tapping a PIN into a little piece of hardware that looks like a tiny calculator.  If the site times out while I'm trying to work out why something isn't clear I have to go through the whole tedious logging in process again.  The old account showed the results of shifting money between accounts immediately, so I could see easily what was left and who else I could afford to pay.  The new one takes, at best, a couple of hours (but usually the next day), to show up any money I have attempted to pay out.  That means that I have to write everything down in a notebook so I can keep track of what I am doing.  What's the point of an online account if I have to do that!  If I want to draw money from my business account into my personal account I have to wait until the next banking day for the money to show up so I can pay personal expenditure off my (ethical) credit card.  I cannot do it all in one session as before.  Sometimes I don't have the time (or the energy) to attempt to use this system on two consecutive days.  Sometimes transfers fail to go through at all.  I discovered today that a transfer I made on 26th June to my credit card did not go through and I had more money in my account than I expected, but also much more to pay off on the card.  Only after copying and pasting from the website into a spreadsheet and spending about an hour trying to work out what had happened could I work it out.  This has happened in the past and has meant I missed a payment deadline and incurred a late payment fee.  Keeping the books straight frequently involves having to go over statements again and again to work out what payments have actually been paid.  My old bank allowed me an unfeasibly high limit on my credit card, but that meant I had to go through the process only once a month since I would never spend that much.  The new bank allows me less than I spend, so I have to clear the card weekly rather than per statement which would be far more straightforward.

I have written to and telephoned the new bank many times about these frustrations.  Surprisingly, the personal account site has been updated and has incorporated many of the changes I said I wanted to see, including making the writing large enough to be legible.  They still have not implemented my request to show deductions from accounts immediately though.  I can't believe I am the only person to think this is a useful feature.  Sadly the business account website still looks like it was created in the 1990s and I sometimes have to peer at the screen with a magnifying glass in my hand.

The last straw may be loaded on were I to discover that my ethical credit card is not actually making any donations to Amnesty International as I expect them to.  I shall be most put out.

I need another picture of a soothing river bank before I have another attempt at online banking.

Another gratuitous waterscape picture

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