ECONOMY

Bank competition improves products, rates

With the domestic banking market gradually getting closer to maturity levels already enjoyed by its counterparts in Europe’s strongest economies, competition between banks is naturally taking on a different form. Practically, this means that high growth levels in terms of business could be moderated, provided that the repercussions from the US-led credit crisis are contained. A question still to be answered is where such competition would focus. Bank officials say that special emphasis should initially be given to the quality of bank products and services, as well as the ability to meet specialized customer needs. «Competition will follow customers in their daily lives, it will not just wait for them to walk into the branch,» some bankers believe. Such developments are expected to provide the momentum for the opening of an increasing number of out-of-branch sales and service points, such as in supermarkets or electronics stores. At the same time, there are plans to turn supermarket cash desks into something similar to an ATM, through a new service, the so-called «cash back,» expected to go into operation within 2008. Under this system, consumers would be allowed to pay by credit card (specifically, Visa) and receive up to -50 in cash, at the interest rate prescribed by their bank. Mortgage credit Competition between banks is also expected to focus on home loans. In this area, offering low interest rates for the first years of the loan will be minimized and competition will move into other areas such as service time and easier procedures. More specifically, emphasis will be placed on reducing the time required for loan approval and disbursement, without however risking the assessment process. On the part of banks, this may be achieved through installation of technologically advanced systems to transfer documents from branches and sale points to central approval departments. At the same time, banks are to allow prospective loan recipients, should they wish to take the trouble, to personally undertake to complete a significant part of the required paperwork, e.g. appear in court to obtain mortgage permission, or take documents to the land registry. Some banks are already involved in these kinds of operations. Most importantly, however, it is estimated that the time required for taking out a home loan could be reduced to 15 days. With regard to consumer credit, debt balance transfer programs (for loans and credit cards) to another bank «to the consumer’s benefit,» as National Bank Consumer Credit head Christoforos Hatzopoulos told Kathimerini, is the primary field for stronger competition. This requires better cooperation between banks and improvement in technological platforms to relieve customers from complex procedures. Today, two in three consumer loan balances are transferred from the first bank (the bank that granted the loan) to another bank before full repayment. This, of course, reflects consumer efforts to reap the benefits offered by such programs. Alternative networks Competition here will center on enhancing the quality of services already being offered. For instance, phone banking, now provided by all banks, would allow the customer to contact the bank for any product or service on a 24-hour basis without having to wait on the phone. Such improvements, however, require further enhancement of infrastructure and more human resources, something that many banks are said to be considering. Lower rates for good customers Another significant area for competition is the personalization of retail banking products and services. For instance, the interest rate level may be set on a per customer base, depending on use. Hatzopoulos says that this policy is currently in force but applies to only very few products and on a very small scale. To date, tailor-made products are widely offered in mobile telephony, allowing subscribers to choose the features of a connection package depending on their own profile and specific needs. Similarly, a retail banking customer will be able to set the basis for cooperation with the bank, as well as the interest rate, charges, overdraft limits, etc. This practice is already a reality in the US, and according to Hatzopoulos it is only a matter of time before it spreads also to Europe.