Some genius at Bigfours Bank must be planning to turn all its branches into coffee shops. His business plan is simple: the coffee will be free, but Bigfours will charge heavily for cinnamon and paper napkins. This, after all, is how his bank runs its existing business, but do the customers like it? Not exactly. Andrew Bailey — his signature appears on countless banknotes, beneath the promise to pay — thinks that they have a point.
How did they and their bank get themselves into this tangle? Time was when the banks simply charged for what they did, with a telltale entry CHRGS in their statements. Then Bank Rate took off, and money parked in a current account, earning no interest, could be lent out again at a fat margin. Those were the days of windfall profits, and at the Midland Bank the penny dropped: "Free banking", it proclaimed, "if your account is in credit." It worked like a magnet — too well, in fact, because all the Midland's competitors had to match its offer. Soon enough free banking stopped being an incentive and turned into a universal assumption, or even a human right.
Today, with Bank Rate at its lowest for 318 years, the windfalls have stopped falling, but someone or something still has to pay for all those branches and for all the machines that spit out money day and night. This can only be the customer, but short of simply billing him, how can the banks get to him? All the ideas that they have tried turn out to have a catch in them.
The first was cross-selling — once defined as making people cross by trying to sell them something they don't want. Let's turn the branches into one-stop financial shops and make them sell insurance, for a start. They missed the basic point that there can be little reward in trying to do everything, and the plan culminated in self-parody when the banks dreamed up Payment Protection Insurance. This was something that their customers almost demonstrably did not want, and those who were sold it have had to be compensated, at a cost that has run into billions.
Another idea has been to attach a fixed fee to an upmarket bank account. This is sure to have a glossy brand name and a smart plastic card to match, and will offer fancy benefits and add-ons, few of which have much to do with banking. The great Brian Pitman of Lloyds saw the need for a club class model of service — there must be room, he thought, between first class and Ryanair — but it has yet to fly.