Barclays launches plastic price war

Who says banks don't want to lend? In the credit card market they are fighting tooth and nail to do so. James Moore reports
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Anyone would think that the credit crunch never happened when Barclaycard yesterday trumpeted what it said was the best balance transfer deal ever.

The company is offering 24 months interest-free to those who switch their outstanding balances to its new platinum card (subject to a 2.8 per cent "handling fee").

The deal raised eyebrows in some quarters yesterday because the 20 months interest free that Barclaycard had previously offered already made it the market leader.

And experts say that the "best ever" claim is well founded – according to financial research company the best deal on offer in July 2007 – just before the credit crunch really started to bite – was just 13 months interest free. It has not found anything better than the Barclaycard offer.

Michelle Slade, a spokeswoman for Moneyfacts, said: "In the last few months interest-free balance transfer deals have soared again and this is the longest interest-free period we have seen. Such an aggressive move is quite surprising given that they were already the market leader."

But before hard-pressed retailers start getting excited, it is worth noting one important point. Ms Slade explains: "If you want to get one of these deals you really do have to have an exemplary credit history. Even the slightest blip on your record and you will probably get rejected."

Barclaycard, too, was quick to point out that one in two customers who apply for Barclaycards get rejected, "and this has remained constant for a number of years".

A spokeswoman said: "As a successful and growing business we are able to offer our customers the most competitive deals and this has remained the same over the past few years. Balance transfer deals across the market have been getting progressively longer over recent years and as a leading player in the market we want to ensure we're at the forefront of offering our customers the best deals."

Here's the translation: Barclaycard is looking to drive business volumes and is willing to sacrifice some margin to do it. It wants to get more customers on its books.

Gareth Hunt, a banking analyst at Investec, says there are good reasons for Barclaycard to be upping the anti. At the recent Barclays Group strategy day he points out that Anthony Jenkins, the company's head of retail and widely touted as a possible successor to Bob Diamond as chief executive of Barclays Group, noted that volumes through Barclaycard have been slowing a bit. However, bad debts have also been decreasing.

Says Mr Hunt of yesterday's deal: "Our guess is that this is probably an effort to get more balances on the books. Barclaycard is a very good business, a very well-managed business. With impairments coming down it's probably not a bad time to be more aggressive. If credit quality is improving they can afford to write more business."

Mr Hunt also says that it is not only in the credit-card market where good deals are to be found as banks seek to drive volumes again. People able to put up a sizeable deposit on houses can also reap the benefits of some favourable interest rates.

"If you look at mortgages there are some very attractive headline rates at 75 per cent loan to value. These are rates to get people to pick up the phone so they can find a little bit more about you before they lend," says Mr Hunt.

While much of the recent attention on the banking industry has been focused on another round of stress tests, Greek defaults and various demands from regulators, he notes that Barclays has set some ambitious targets for shareholder returns. So have HSBC and Lloyds. The executives at those banks have to deliver on those targets soon if they want to avoid some tough questions from their shareholders.

"Barclays has to deliver a 13 per cent return on equity by 2013. That's really not a long time away so Bob Diamond is under quite a lot of pressure to deliver. So are the other banking executives."

It should be noted that Mr Diamond could well have a point to prove: he missed out on the chief executive's job when his predecessor John Varley was appointed and has been taking his fair share of flak recently. What better way to silence his critics than to meet and exceed those targets, thus proving that his Barclays is a lean, mean fighting machine?

So this is good news for consumers, at least those who are considered to be low-risk "prime" borrowers: people who still have the ability (and willingness) to spend on their credit card, but who can be relied upon to pay back what they borrow.

Will Barclaycard's move prompt a response from rivals, kicking off a price war? Hard to say. Joint second in the Moneyfacts Best Buy table when it comes to length of interest-free period on balance transfers are Virgin Money and US group MBNA. They both offer 19 months, and Virgin was being unusually coy yesterday, saying only: "We will continue to monitor the market. Virgin Money has offered good value balance transfer products for the past three years and will continue to do so."

Don't be surprised if there is more to come.