The Undercover Economist: Bankers are laughing all the way to the bank

Going overdrawn can be an expensive business. In the UK, unauthorised overdrafts averaged £680m on any given day in 2006 – just over £10 per bank account. According to the Office of Fair Trading, the charges levied by banks on those overdrafts were £1.5bn, a tasty return of more than 220 per cent. Banks also make money by paying risible interest on positive balances – an incentive to keep your current account lean and, Doh!, to overdraw accidentally – and by other obscure charges. The Office of Fair Trading doesn’t like it and nor do many customers – although they rarely express their displeasure by switching bank accounts.

There are two common responses. People either grumble about money-grabbing banks or point out, smugly, that if only others would manage their affairs responsibly, they wouldn’t incur any of these charges.

There’s a certain amount of truth in both responses. Yes, banks are money-grabbing, but healthy competition would keep the greed in check. And, yes, careful customers are being subsidised, heavily, by careless ones. The trouble is that the whimsicality of the pricing makes it hard to find out which bank is offering a good deal. Most people realise that overdraft charges are steep, just as they realise that popcorn in cinemas is expensive and mobile-phone companies will all but pick your pocket if you make calls overseas. Knowing this doesn’t make it easy to find the best product, which means competition won’t work well. When competition works poorly, many customers lose out – even those who bring their own snacks to the cinema and use public phones on holiday.

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Publishing schedule: Excerpts from "The Undercover Economist" and "Dear Economist", Tim's weekly columns for the FT Magazine, are published on this blog on Saturday mornings.
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