Banks get a taste for the SME buck

The banks are at war for each other's growing business accounts. Paul Gosling examines the deals on offer
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The Independent Online

It has taken four years since a hard-hitting report on UK banking by City high-flyer Don Cruickshank for banks to offer a better deal for growing businesses. But since the beginning of the year, the major banks have had their near monopoly on SME accounts challenged and have been forced to help businesses move to competitors offering better terms.

It has taken four years since a hard-hitting report on UK banking by City high-flyer Don Cruickshank for banks to offer a better deal for growing businesses. But since the beginning of the year, the major banks have had their near monopoly on SME accounts challenged and have been forced to help businesses move to competitors offering better terms.

Cruickshank reported to the Treasury that the then Big Four banks - HSBC, Barclays, RBS and Lloyds TSB - controlled 90 per cent of the SME and growing business market, earning them £10bn a year in profits. Half of this, Cruickshank concluded, was excessive. The Big Four's stranglehold was maintained, he said, in part because it was difficult for businesses to move their accounts.

Well, now it is simpler to switch. Banks must now conform to an undertaking they provided to the Office of Fair Trading which assists customers to switch current accounts. A bank must now provide the client's new bank with all essential information, such as regular payment instructions, within three working days and provide the transfer balance and levelling-off of accounts within four days. Banks had already agreed to introduce more transparent charging systems and they were instructed to either pay interest - at a minimum of 2.5 per cent below base rate - or offer free transactions.

The more competitive landscape is already having an effect. Alliance & Leicester, Abbey and Halifax/Bank of Scotland are fighting to win larger market share, offering tariff structures and interest on current accounts. HSBC is about to upgrade its business accounts to fight back against the emerging competition, while encouraging SMEs to put spare cash into higher-earning three-month bonds.

Abbey claims that small businesses which switch to it from a Big Four bank could save £1,000 annually, through free banking and interest on current accounts. Alliance & Leicester (A&L) has just launched its own "free business current account", with no charges for customers who make no more than 50 transactions a month, and which pays a quarter per cent more than the Big Four on credit balances. The financial researcher Business Moneyfacts named A&L Best Business Current Account Provider last year.

Companies can conduct their own assessment of costs and benefits of competing banks through the Business Account Finder service provided by Business Moneyfacts, available on the British Bankers' Association website, www.bba.org.uk. But SMEs should not just consider tariffs and interest payments. Looking at factors such as speed, quality and politeness of responses to calls, Business Moneyfacts rated Barclays first, followed by Lloyds TSB, Alliance & Leicester, Norwich & Peterborough, NatWest (RBS) and Abbey. It should be stressed that only those banks were assessed and judged on the strength of a single call to each.

John Rendall, head of business banking at HSBC, says that growing businesses should look beyond costs. "Whether we are a good bank or not does depend on what the customer is particularly looking for. Our strength is that we remain committed to local delivery of services. We can respond best to our customers by keeping experienced and skilled staff in bank branches. That remains popular with our customers.

"We don't have headline free business banking - we don't think that it is sustainable given our approach to the marketplace, with local delivery. Most of these offers come with strings attached, such as not having access to branch networks, or minimum balances, or maximum transactions. If someone's sole criterion is the cheapest service, we won't always meet that." Rendall argues that a larger bank instead can offer expertise and reach. With HSBC's presence in 80 countries, Rendall says that - subject to the varying money laundering regulations in place around the world - HSBC will make local introductions to help SMEs grow and open bank accounts in target markets.

There is, then, no such thing as the "best bank", but rather the "most appropriate bank". Those with global aspirations might be best with a worldwide bank. Others may just want to claw back some of that £5bn a year in "excessive profits" the Big Four have taken from them.

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