A whinge or two about the windfalls ...

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The Independent Online
I am tiring of windfall announcements. Not the prospect of the money, you understand: after all, the vast majority of building society savers and not a few of their borrowers would be better off with windfalls than the claims (in many cases open to dispute) of societies staying mutual that they offer better rates.

What irritates me is the unwillingness of the demutualisers to give us a full picture when they make their "good news" announcements - ie what we will get, when, and when we can touch our savings without affecting windfall eligibility.

Birmingham Midshires last week announced its long-awaited windfall deal - to sell out to the Royal Bank of Scotland. Despite the year or more it has appeared to be seeking a buyer, and despite its waffle about the importance of customer service (it even came top in a recent survey of building societies), it is being as infuriating as the rest of this year's rash of converters.

The society refuses to confirm officially that it will pay a low basic handout to recent savers, even though if it doesn't do this then longer- term savers face having their windfalls seriously diluted by the carpetbaggers.

The society is likely to pay bigger windfalls to longer- term and/or bigger savers (or even those with more accounts), but it won't commit itself publicly to this, give the details, nor say what will be the future qualifying dates. So once again - as with previous converters - savers, for fear of losing out on windfalls, are in effect locked in with what are already uninspiring interest rates.

We do have the when - September-ish next year - which is a nearer horizon than that set by most of the previous demutualisers, and which means details of the payout will be known for the vote on the deal in the spring. But if Midshires really wants to prove its commitment to service (after all, it certainly doesn't win on price) it should come clean sooner.

One explanation for its reticence may lie in a quirk of the deal: the actual price RBS pays will depend on the profitability of Midshires over the next year. Arguably that puts the society's management under pressure to squeeze their customers so that, paradoxically, they can maximise the overall windfalls they can pay. And what easier customer base to squeeze than one that feels locked in waiting for windfalls? If instead Midshires hands out details of its distribution sooner rather than later or even announces that savers (or borrowers) can withdraw their money without affecting their windfalls, it would be under more pressure to keep its rates keener.

Frowns could even be extended to the value of the overall deal (between pounds 605m and pounds 630m) and the average it implies - pounds 700 a head. This may well seem disappointing against the value of many of this year's windfalls. All in all, I predict a slump in customer satisfaction at Midshires, and it's not even a bank yet.

STUDENTS facing a financial clampdown in the form of tuition fees and (even) lower maintenance grants can at least rest assured that the banks still love them, for now at least.

Once again, the deals for students are being improved for this year, with a number of the big names offering pounds 50 upfront and overdrafts of up to pounds 2,000.

Bizarrely, the banks think their ever more generous deals will ensure they keep students for life. Why they can't just target youngish working people I'll never fathom, given that these are the people they really want to catch anyway. Being a youngish grouch I would say that, of course.

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