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Mad as hell at your bank? You don't have to take it

02:28 EDT Tuesday, August 28, 2001

In the memorable 1976 movie, Network,a crazed television anchorman urges his viewers to open their windows and shout: "I'm mad as hell and I'm not going to take this any more."

The anchorman character, played by Peter Finch, is railing against the moral collapse of Western civilization. However, it occurs to me that a lot of people have probably felt this way about their bank lately.

A few of the big banks have been tinkering with fees and services in the past while and the result is more of the former and less of the latter. I know this shocks you.

Most people will shrug off these changes, if they notice them at all, while others may buy into the carefully crafted justifications offered by the banks.

The rest, the ones who are mad as hell, will think about changing banks. Actually, some have already made the move.

After TD Canada Trust rejigged its lineup of bank accounts in March, President's Choice Financial experienced a strong increase in the number of new accounts being opened.

Back then, the regular flow of new customers at PC Financial was in the low 20,000-a-month range, explained Mike Spero, who oversees the bank's operations as president of Amicus Bank, the on-line banking division of Canadian Imperial Bank of Commerce. PC Financial is a joint venture between Amicus and Loblaw grocery stores.

After TD Canada Trust's changes took affect, there was a month in which an extra 4,000 to 5,000 people a week signed on, Mr. Spero said.

Getting mad at your bank is one thing, but finding the energy to change banks is quite another because of all the work involved.

Still, as Mr. Spero put it, "Every so often, one of the banks does something to lift the inertia."

PC Financial, an on-line bank with staffed kiosks in some grocery stores, appeals to customers of the big banks because it offers fee-free everyday banking.

Of course, PC Financial is just one of many alternatives out there for disgruntled customers of a big bank. Two worth considering are Citizens Bank of Canada, a pure Internet bank, and ING Direct, which offers only savings and loan accounts. It may even be that another big bank offers lower costs or better service than your existing institution.

The point is that you really don't have to take it any more when your bank jacks up fees.

Mr. Spero offered his take on alternative banking in an interview in Ottawa, a stop on a recent tour he made of PC Financial kiosks in southeastern Ontario Loblaw stores.

The previous week, he said, several of the stores he visited reported a surge in new recruits coming from Royal Bank.

Effective Aug. 1, RBC raised a variety of fees across its lineup of services. What seems to have really annoyed people, though, were new fees applied to the bank's bonus savings and bankbook chequing accounts. For instance, it now costs 50 cents to make an in-branch withdrawal.

The merger of Canada Trust with Toronto-Dominion Bank to form TD Canada Trust has been good for PC Financial in a couple of ways. For instance, Mr. Spero said there has been an increase in the number of people signing up for lines of credit, a response to TD's elimination of a popular credit product called PowerLine.

Amicus offers on-line banking through two outlets -- PC Financial and Amicus Financial, which is linked to the Sympatico Web portal (both Sympatico and The Globe and Mail are owned by Bell Globemedia). A third outlet will shortly become available through Investors Group, the country's largest mutual fund company.

One of the drawbacks of doing business with a bank such as PC Financial is that it doesn't offer a full line of financial products. For example, youth accounts and registered education savings plans will only be added in the next while, as will guaranteed investment certificates for registered retirement plans (non-registered GICs are available now.)

The bank is also looking at adding an on-line brokerage service, possibly in 2003.

Just as important to PC Financial's future is what it doesn't change. Specifically, the bank has absolutely no room to make the same kind of fee increases as the big banks.

"Bank customers are less loyal than they used to be," Mr. Spero said.

"If we do anything to shatter their faith in us, we'd be done overnight."

RBC and TD aren't under that kind of pressure. Some of their clients have relationships with their banks that are complex and hard to sever. And let's not forget that many customers are generally happy, even if they may whine a fair bit.

Still, the PC Financial example is interesting. Some people are mad as hell and they're not taking it any more.

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