Banks are an Endangered Species

In the long run, all the hullabaloo about the various global banking crises is just hot air.

The old establishment banks — the ones that have been bailed out this week in Spain, and in 2008 in America — are unnecessary middlemen. This is because of the ludicrous spreads from which they profit. They borrow from central banks and from depositors at absurdly low rates of interest (that’s what ZIRP is all about) and lend at vastly higher rates. What useful function does it serve? At one time, banks generated value by being wise lenders, lending to businesses that they determined would add value. Today they prefer gamble up even bigger profits in the zero-sum derivatives casino and shadow banking whorehouse, requiring frequent bailouts when such schemes go awry. They are dinosaurs that offer no real value to their shareholders, their customers, or to society.

And for all their claims of systemic importance, for all the bailouts, all the whining, all the pontification they are gradually being sidelined by other forms of intermediation, specifically peer-to-peer lending wherein lenders and borrowers are matched directly often via the internet. The lender gets interest, the borrower pays interest, but because there is no middleman taking a (huge) cut both rates are more favourable — the borrower pays less interest, the lender receives more interest.

The market for such lending has already grown to £250 million-a-year in the UK alone. The BBC reports:

Lending via three websites that link savers with borrowers – bypassing the banking system – has topped £250m.

The “new age” finance carries no protection for deposits, but is being tipped as a serious threat to traditional banks.

The peer-to-peer sites are led by Zopa, which has lent more than £200m since it started in 2005.

Funding Circle, specialising in business loans, has topped £34m, and RateSetter has reached £24m.

Last month the government said it would lend these sort of firms £100m to help expand their own lending to businesses.

Alas, the government could lend these firms ten times that (that would still be a tiny sliver of what they have channelled to the establishment banks in recent years) and the market would still be rigged in favour of the establishment banks.

That’s because of deposit insurance. Money lent peer-to-peer is not insured by the government, whereas money deposited in banks is. This is a heinous advantage that the dinosaur banks have been given by government fiat, and certainly a huge stumbling block to peer-to-peer lending forcing the dinosaur banking system to either massively cut their spreads, or go out of business.

Governments who want a fair free market banking system with the benefits of real competition should either extend some form of deposit insurance to peer-to-peer lending schemes, or should get rid of deposit insurance altogether. Everyone wins except the banks and large financial corporations — lenders get more interest for their money, borrowers pay lower rates, and the parasitic establishment banking system that has vampirised the taxpayer for trillions must either choose to drastically reform itself to compete against peer-to-peer lending, or go out of business.

In a free market without the unfair advantage of deposit insurance the banking dinosaurs profiting from huge spreads would be an endangered species. They are only surviving and prospering because the government has rigged the rules of the game for their favour. That cannot last forever.

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UK Banks Want to Charge Customers for Accounts

This is nuts. UK banks want to charge customers for the privilege of handing over their money and letting banks gamble it in the global derivatives casino.

From the Telegraph:

A groundswell of support for change is understood to be gathering among the authorities. The Treasury’s advisers on the Independent Commission on Banking and the Office of Fair Trading are said to be also backing the proposals, alongside the treasury select committee and financial regulators.

Britain is the only country in Europe to operate a “free-in-credit” model of current account banking. Instead of levying fees on an account, lenders make their money through “stealth charges” on overdrafts and cross-selling of other products. Only India and Australia run equivalent models.

Regulators and officials want to reform the system to boost competition by making it easier to compare rival accounts. They also believe so-called “free banking” encourages mis-selling of financial products, exposes banks to compensation risks and lets customers down.

So the impression that bankers and regulators have seems to be that banks are doing customers a favour by holding onto their money and occasionally losing it all buying junk securities.

Nope. In a free market, banks that tried to charge customers for the privilege would be laughed out of the marketplace. Banks — by their very definition as intermediaries — generate profits from making good investments, not by charging customers for the privilege of holding their money.

Unfortunately this isn’t a free market, and banks can (and probably will) co-ordinate with each other to keep the market uncompetitive. Barriers to entry make it difficult to impossible for new players to enter the market and dislodge the status quo.

As the Office of Fair Trading noted in their must-read 2010 report:

New entrants to the retail banking sector face significant challenges in attracting customers and expanding their market shares, an OFT review has found.

The review of barriers to entry, expansion and exit in retail banking, published today, was launched in May 2010 to identify any obstacles blocking firms from entering the sector or from successfully competing against existing firms, as well as factors preventing inefficient firms from exiting the market and being replaced by more efficient ones.

Two words: banking cartel. Need I say more?

Anyway, I know what I will do with my money if my bank insists on charging me for the privilege of gambling my money: close my account, and find a bank that won’t charge. Even given the current barriers to entry, the opportunity to undercut the bigger players will be too good an opportunity to miss. And I’m sure lots of other people will do the same. Given that some parts of the UK banking industry (especially the Spanish-owned parts, and especially Banco Santander) are already looking shaky, does the UK banking industry really want customers pulling their money en mass?