Those greedy banks: it does them no credit

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The Independent Online
BANK managers have always made me recoil like a sea anemone threatened by something hungry. My financial practices were never exactly Micawberish. I am no stranger to the overdraft, but I never stole money from my bank manager, I borrowed it and paid him hefty interest in token of my gratitude. I did not pay others to batten upon his misfortunes. (I learn from a news report this week that A Certain Bank pays its staff up to pounds 400 a year for squeezing the maximum amount in bank charges from its customers.) I did not deliberately break our agreement behind his back and then deny it. Yet every bank manager in my past - except the present one - has done one or more of these things to me.

Bank managers have inquired, not tenderly, why I didn't marry some rich man and put an end to their problems. They have suggested I should sell the roof over my own and my children's heads and use the money thus raised to pay off my overdraft: even though this never amounted to more than a fraction of the value of said roof, on which in any case they had a second charge so that come what may, their security was assured.

They have exacted interest at rates from which usurers would shrink, and charged me anything from 7s 6d to pounds 40, over the years, for each letter reminding me that the aforementioned overdraft had yet to be erased: as though this were news to me. They have diverted what money I did have into their own coffers under the guise of 'bank charges': that unilateral and unverifiable miscellaneous item on every bank statement.

In short, they have behaved rapaciously, unscrupulously, and above all, stupidly, failing to grasp that I was not in debt because I wanted to be but because, rearing three children on one unaided salary, I had little alternative.

Not once did I meet a bank manager who understood that, given the choice between an overdraft and a hungry child, any right-minded mother will choose the overdraft. (Mothers who do not have the option of an overdraft will steal rather than let a child go hungry: and quite right, too. It used to be thought that rape was a primitive and ungovernable male urge deserving every mitigating circumstance. Why, I wonder, was the same tolerance never extended to the equivalent female urge to feed and clothe her young?) Not until my children were grown up did income and outgoings begin more or less to correspond, and the overdraft to plummet.

Nowadays, stories like mine are on everybody's lips. I heard about a cleaning woman being charged pounds 30 a time for a weekly letter reminding her of an overdraft of pounds 630, thereby rendering it irreducible. Perpetual motion, bank manager style: what a great discovery] My son, working freelance in a business particularly hard hit by the recession, has the same complaint. His bank charges last year amounted to pounds 1,500, and I am not talking about the interest on his loan. Those are 'administrative charges', that Alice in Wonderland word again, meaning whatever the bank wants it to mean.

The reason for today's blatant and indeed wicked exploitation of customers lies in the big banks' disastrous investments in the Eighties . . . in property whose market crashed; loans urged upon Third World countries which could not repay them and whose debts had to be written off (despite having paid many times over in interest exacted); and in the continuing expectation of sky-high interest rates which then fell.

All these miscalculations mean that bank profits have dropped like a stone: last week, Barclays announced the first pre-tax loss in its history. Customers are being squeezed to pay for all the big banks' mistakes. Bankers themselves, meanwhile, gaze smugly and censoriously at a world of mismanaged money, forgetting that their own lives have often been eased by mortgages at unrealistically low interest rates. At the same time, they bear no financial responsibility for the damage caused to their own institutions, nor do they share in the distress caused to their customers.

In rare cases where the big men in big suits responsible for the crucial decisions are 'retired early', they leave with a five- or six-figure redundancy payment, so they can go on enjoying that cushioned existence that made them unrealistic and incompetent in the first place.

Bank managers - like policemen - used to be stolid, respectable figures; pillars of society whose advice could be trusted. Now they are almost universally reviled. The uncaring tools of policies decided far above their heads, they have no power to act on their own authority or from personal knowledge of customers: which, in any case, they do not have.

My own bank manager, the incomparable Graeme, is of course an exception to all of the above. OK Graeme?