Money News: Annual fees set to return as lenders claw back their costs

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The Independent Online

The reintroduction of the fee, largely abandoned in the 1990s as the credit card market became fiercely competitive, would form part of a fightback by banks and card lenders hit by a costly "treble whammy".

First, bad debts are rising as consumers overstretch themselves and default on what they owe; bankruptcies and individual voluntary arrangements are on the up.

Second, "rate tart" customers, who hop from one cheap credit card to the next, continue to cost the industry money.

It is estimated, PwC reports, that consumers who switch their outstanding credit balances between 0 per cent card deals to avoid paying any interest have hit the sector's pockets to the tune of some £600m this year. That has been despite the widespread introduction of a balance transfer fee of 2 per cent.

Third, a number of regulatory bodies have been looking at some of the practices of the lending industry - payment protection insurance (PPI) on loans, for example, and penalty fees for late payment - and this will probably force banks to levy lower charges in the future.

In this environment, annual fees are likely to emerge as a way for lenders to claw back some money, PwC forecasts.

"Credit card providers are coming under increasing pressure from competition and mounting regulatory scrutiny," said Richard Thompson, a PwC partner and author of the report.

"[With the regulatory inquiries], some aspects appear to be based on the assumption of excess profitability, but there's a danger [they're] all targeting the same profit pool."

As a result, he said, there would be a "waterbed effect", where the costs would be reallocated with an annual fee.

Last month, the MBNA credit card company introduced annual card fees for a number of its customers.

PwC's "Precious Plastic 2005" report accurately predicted the squeeze on 0 per cent balance transfer deals.

Mortgages: Brokers berated over self-certified loans

Nearly half of mortgage brokers have failed to show that they have properly assessed whether consumers can afford a self-certified mortgage, the Financial Services Authority (FSA) has found.

These loans are usually taken out by borrowers who are self-employed or unable to show a steady stream of income. In such cases, applicants are allowed to provide estimates of earnings.

In some instances, however, the sales process has been vulnerable to people inflating their salaries to try to secure a bigger loan.

In FSA visits to 249 brokers, taking place over a period of several months this year, 117 were unable to show they had taken appropriate action during the sales and advice process to check a customer's ability to afford a self-certified loan.

In more than a third of cases, there was no reason supplied in the paperwork for why the self-cert loan had been approved, instead of a normal home loan, as a suitable mortgage.

The City watchdog also mystery-shopped 41 small brokers and said it had found no evidence of systemic fraud, where brokers encourage borrowers to "massage" their annual income figures to obtain a bigger mortgage.

However, on three occasions, the FSA discovered that brokers were prepared to "discuss with clients" how to inflate their salary for this purpose.

"The findings from brokers show significant weaknesses, which are disappointing," said Clive Briault, the FSA's managing director of retail markets.

"But it is encouraging that we have found no evidence to suggest salary inflation is widespread within the industry."

On a brighter note, the FSA found that banks had generally bolstered their sales and advice administrative controls for self-cert mortgages.

Financial 'inclusion': MPs to probe bank treatment of the poor

A committee of MPs is to investigate whether the poor and unemployed are being unfairly excluded from the mainstream financial services industry.

Starting early next year, the Treasury Select Committee will examine basic bank accounts; high-interest credit agreements, including "doorstep" credit; savings incentives for low earners; access to financial advice; and the Government's own policies to promote financial "inclusion".

The Government wants to achieve a 50 per cent reduction in the 1.9 million British people who don't have any sort of bank account.

Banks have been criticised for failing to offer basic accounts - simple current accounts without an overdraft facility - to customers.

A lack of consumer confidence is also an issue: fear that their credit record will put off banks has driven may people into the hands of expensive doorstep credit lenders, when they would have qualified for a high-street loan.

Last year, the Government earmarked £120m to set up a Financial Inclusion Task Force to look at ways the UK financial services industry could help to tackle poverty.

Cashback on plastic: Perk in peril as iPledge parts from Lloyds

The specialist iPledge credit card, which puts cashback earnt by customers into a children's saving account, faces an uncertain future after splitting from its provider Lloyds TSB just 19 months after its launch.

The iPledge card offers up to 0.8 per cent cashback which is paid into a special deposit account, with interest linked to the Bank of England base rate. This can then be used to build up a pot of savings for a child's university costs.

However, after a "business review", iPledge has now split from Lloyds TSB.

Cashback will stop being paid in early December when Lloyds TSB sends out a replacement card but without a cashback facility.

iPledge, an organisation selling children's savings products, is seeking a new card partner, but it is unlikely that a replacement cashback facility will be available immediately.

"[We are] in discussions with other card providers," an iPledge spokesman said.

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