Is the banking system really ready for the ‘big switch’?
This week was a busy one in the Irish banking landscape as AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB all reported annual results for 2021.
There were many angles arising – from a return to profits, to the resumption of dividends, and progress on the purchase of new assets, to the reduction of the State’s stake in AIB and Bank of Ireland.
The war in Ukraine also threw up another unexpected focus, with all three banks highlighting the challenge it might pose to the economic recovery in Ireland and around the world, with subsequent knock-on effects for their business.
But there is also another enormous issue coming rapidly down the tracks, which insiders claim may pose a substantial difficulty for the banking system here.
The corporate decisions taken last year by Ulster Bank and KBC Bank to wind down their operations in Ireland are now beginning to come into sharp focus and take on a consumer dimension.
Within weeks and likely before the end of March, it’s expected Ulster Bank will begin writing to the owners of over 900,000 current and deposit accounts, asking them to start the process of finding a new bank.
Of those, Ulster Bank estimates 360,000 are primary active personal current accounts, which will be considered the main driver of the “big switch”, as they will have to be moved elsewhere.
70% of these customers are digitally active, which may make the moving process easier, while 255,000 more have little or no transactions passing through them and therefore may not need to be reopened in another bank.
A further 300,000 are deposit accounts. Some are linked to current accounts and others are not, but collectively they are not expected to require as much work when the movement process begins.
Account holders will be given six months in which to complete the process from when they receive their notification letter telling them to start.
But because customers will receive those letters on a staggered basis over six months, in total the process is expected to last around one year.
Many of KBC’s more than 300,000 customers will also be affected.
Its deposit accounts are due to be purchased by Bank of Ireland, provided regulatory approval for the overall deal between the two lenders is granted.
However, its remaining current accounts will not be, and will have to be closed or moved elsewhere.
“We will be communicating formally to KBC Bank Ireland current account customers in the coming weeks to let them know that while they do not need to take any action yet, they may wish to start considering their options in terms of moving their current account,” it said.
“This includes explaining to each customer the options available to them, setting out the actions that customers may need to take and offering our support in carrying them out should regulatory approval be received.”
So in total then, over a million customer accounts will have to be switched, or closed and then reopened elsewhere over the coming months.
It will be a mammoth undertaking for a system that is already in great flux, following a period of restructuring, consolidation and the pandemic.
And privately, some industry sources are growing increasingly concerned that it could become a huge mess.
In interviews this week, the CEOs of AIB, Bank of Ireland and Permanent TSB were all asked about their institutions’ state of readiness for a potentially enormous influx of new accounts over the coming months and all offered words of reassurance.
“We want to welcome these customers to AIB and we will put the resources in place, we will make the investment, we’ll have the staffing available to ensure those customers who want to come to AIB as they seek a new banking relationship, that those customers have as pain free and as seamless an experience as possible,” AIB Chief Executive Colin Hunt told RTÉ News.
Permanent TSB, which is in the process of recruiting 200 new staff to contract positions to deal with the extra workload of on-boarding new customers, had a similar message.
“We believe that around 70% of Ulster Bank customers are single [account] only customers rather than dual customers, and therefore our digital current account opening allows us to do it remotely without visiting a branch,” said PTSB Chief Executive Eamonn Crowley.
“And therefore they will have an active current account. And then the challenge for those customers is that they have to then move their direct debits from their existing Ulster account, for instance their salary payment, but also if they are paying their electricity bills, or telephone, mobile, Sky etc.”
“They will have to go their various direct debit originators to move from one account to another. And that is probably the biggest challenge.”
This was a point echoed by Francesca McDonagh, Chief Executive of Bank of Ireland, who said there is already a movement in accounts taking place.
“We’ve invested resources to be able to on-board them well,” she claimed.
“Obviously the investments we’ve made in our IT system helps us to have a more scalable model.
“The issue is not just about the bank’s response though to changing those current accounts. It is system wide.
“So we can open a current account very easily…it is very straightforward. But customers need to tell their utility firms, their refuse collection, their Panda direct debit needs to go a new account.
“There is a residual element there that customers and the broader system need to accommodate and support.”
Senior figures across the banking sector acknowledge the direct debit originator issue is going to be a particular challenge, particularly if the Central Bank Switching Code process, which should see it taken care of by the banks, isn’t used.
But back on their own doorsteps, there is mounting official and anecdotal evidence that the various banks themselves are not yet properly prepared for what lies ahead.
On social media and elsewhere, customers are already reporting frustratingly long delays in getting appointments to begin the process of opening new accounts.
In certain branches they are being told they will have to wait several months before they can meet an official to get a current account up and running.
In other cases, the heavily promoted digital account opening offerings don’t extend to deposit accounts, or can’t handle anything out of the ordinary, requiring a visit to a branch instead.
And getting through on the phone isn’t always an option either. Some institutions appear to have customer phone line numbers well hidden on their websites.
A recent Central Bank review also found that when they call them customers are often forced to wait an inordinate amount of time.
The situation recently led the Financial Services Union (FSU) to warn recently that the sector is not equipped presently to deal with all the issues that will undoubtedly flow from the decision by Ulster Bank and KBC to leave the Irish Banking market.
It claims that realistic timeframes need to be set for the exits of the two banks and that the Central Bank needs to block any proposal to announce their exit prior to regulatory decisions being made.
The union is concerned about the toll the growing pressure is already and will exact on frontline bank staff.
“We’re talking to regulators and stakeholders and outlining our very serious concerns to proceed with any proposal at this moment,” said FSU General Secretary John O’Connell.
He warned that the receiving system at the other financial institutions is not yet in a position to receive the level of accounts that need to be switched.
The formal regulated Central Bank Switching Code process is seen by many as the best way to accommodate account moves.
But some industry sources question whether it will be favoured by the banks, because it requires them to do most of the work.
If a customer closes an account instead, and opens a new one elsewhere, the workload falls on them.
However, one insider pointed out that it is only a time and resource issue that will stop the formal switching process from working.
Central Bank to monitor compliance
The Central Bank has said it expects that banks have plans in place to manage the impact on their customers of the significant changes taking place.
“This is a priority for us, and we will be actively monitoring banks’ compliance with our expectations,” it said in a statement.
“It is important to note the retail banks’ responsibilities in ensuring that they are putting their customer first, ensuring fair treatment of customers and that customers understand what changes mean for them.”
The regulator has been engaging with the banks ahead of the process getting under way, impressing upon them the need for transparent and clear communications, plenty of notice and the impact the situation will have on vulnerable customers.
“All customers that currently have an account with KBC Bank and Ulster Bank will be notified by their bank, with sufficient notice, to switch their accounts and provided with information on how the banks will assist them to do this,” said the Central Bank.
“However, customers do not have to wait for their banks to contact them and can decide to move to alternative providers at any stage.”
Ulster Bank has itself been holding regular meetings with key stakeholder groups, including those representing vulnerable groups, to ensure everyone is aware of what is going on and about to happen.
KBC also said it was “fully conscious of responsibilities” to its customers, and will continue to provide “material updates as the process develops”.
“We will communicate with customers well in advance of any actual steps or changes that may be taken in respect of their products, in line with all legal and regulatory obligations, while also ensuring that customers have plenty of notice to make an informed decision and take any required actions,” it said.
There is also cross-industry work being done by the Banking and Payments Federation Ireland on how the changes will be coordinated and communicated.
All in the sector hope the steps being taken will be enough, but many quietly fear they won’t.
And if they aren’t enough then a bumpy road lies ahead for banking customers the length and breadth of the country.