ATM fees abolition a smoke screen?

ATM-fees-abolition
One of several “enhanced” ATM’s located in the Alberta Arts District of Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ian Sane https://flic.kr/p/X2R8op

If you were feeling all warm and fuzzy about the Big Four banks deciding to drop the hated ‘foreign’ ATM fees, sorry, the feeling won’t last. For a start, the Commonwealth Bank’s decision to go first didn’t last long. The CBA announced the fee abolition early on Sunday (aiming for a slow news day lead). But within hours, Westpac, the ANZ and National Bank of Australia had all suddenly (on a Sunday) released statements that they had come to the same point of view. The likely reason is that the boards of all four banks (and others) have had the ATM fees item on their agendas for a while now, just waiting for the right time to tell their media people to press “go”.

And they make it sound like they’re doing us all a big favour. Banks have been gouging ATM fees (typically $2 or $2.50) since the Reserve Bank of Australia first said they could, in March 2009. The main ‘victims’ of this unjust fee (for using an ATM owned by another bank), were the people who travel interstate or intrastate and had no choice.

RBA data tells us there were 251.65 million ‘foreign’ ATM withdrawals in the last financial year. Deutsche Bank estimates the Big Four have foregone about $117 million by dropping the ATM fee, according to the Australian Financial Review. But that’s a modest amount compared to the $4.4 billion we collectively pay out in bank fees every year.

RateCity analysis of RBA data shows the average mortgage holder paid $471 on banking fees last year. That includes $240 a year in home loan fees and $231 in credit card fees.

In this context as some have suggested, the ATM fees abolition story is a PR smoke screen. ABC senior business correspondent Peter Ryan said of Sunday’s news coup…“the planned, if not co-ordinated, decision is mostly about banks doing what it takes to avoid a royal commission into bad banking behaviour.”

The most recent media disclosures about money laundering allegations compound other image issues for banks, including financial advice scandals and allegations of market manipulation and misleading conduct.

While the big bank PR people might be spinning this as “listening to our consumers”, the real story is ATMs are becoming less popular.

Reserve Bank of Australia (RBA) data shows ATM use is falling and falling sharply. Monthly withdrawal transactions have fallen from a high of 78.427 million in December 2008 to 48.684 million in January 2017.

Banking analysts ascribe this sharp downturn in ATM use to the now ubiquitous “tap” method of paying for anything from a Mars bar to a week’s worth of groceries. There is also the “any cash out?” query whenever you spend money in a supermarket or bottle shop.

Pat McConnell, Visiting Fellow, Macquarie University Applied Finance Centre, says new technologies will soon be launched that further undermine ATMs. The biggest will be the New Payments Platform (NPP). Another is OSKO, a new payment mechanism from the developers of BPAY.

McConnell writing for The Conversation, says the NPP will change the way that payments are made in Australia.

“Rather than putting a payment on a credit card or waiting a few days for a payment from another bank to clear, with NPP payments will be cleared in a few minutes or less. Using NPP, anyone will be able to make an almost instantaneous transfer of funds into the bank of a supplier, such as a plumber.”

As McConnell puts it, with NPP, everyone with a smartphone and spare cash is an ATM.

Technology changes go some way to explaining why so many bank branches are closing or relocating to kiosk-style retail outlets. Last week, for the first time, I withdrew cash from an ATM outside the local Bank of Queensland branch. I did so because the Suncorp branch in Maleny closed in mid-September and with it went the Suncorp ATM. Suncorp’s advice was to use (a) the BOQ-branded ATM across the road or (b) withdraw cash at the Post Office. Transaction duly completed, I was pleased/relieved to find that I was not charged a fee for using the other provider’s ATM.

(Incidentally, Suncorp announced on Tuesday it would scrap ‘foreign’ fees on its 400 ATMs Australia-wide by the end of December).

There are still six ATMs in Maleny, although the jury is out as to which won’t charge a fee if you bank with someone else.

In case you didn’t know, some ATMs (the ones found in pubs, casinos, convenience stores, roadhouses and other retail outlets) may charge you a fee regardless. What the Big Bank decision to scrap ATM fees means for their business model remains to be seen.

Maleny has just two banks left (Bank of Queensland and Maleny Credit Union (now called MCU Ltd). The ANZ left its ATM in place and established a mobile business bank at the other end of the street.

Since 2007, the number of bank branches in Australia has dropped from 6,600 in 2007 to fewer than 5,600. Branch closures are ongoing, with the Finance Sector Union recently revealing Westpac branch closures in Western Australia and Victoria.

When our local Suncorp branch closed, we went in to check out rumours of cake. Yes, there was (gluten-free) cake, iced in Suncorp colours.

We popped in to say “bye”, but ironically tellers were too pre-occupied serving customers for other than a quick “thanks and good luck”.

What’s bothering me more, honestly, is my habit of collecting gold coins in a container and, once I have $100 or so, banking the cash in my account. Oh, you do that too? The gals at Suncorp didn’t have a problem with this old-school habit. We were told (by Suncorp) we could do basic banking business at the local Australia Post branch. I queued up yesterday, banked $30 in gold coins and it was no drama at all. I even got a receipt.

Now, about that late fee for missing a credit card payment by one day…

 

Cancel my PO Box

PO-Box
Photo of PO Box Warburton (Vic) by Mick Stanic

Some of my rural readers have been writing impassioned letters about a troubling domestic issue (the rising cost of renting a PO Box).

“Dear Mr BobWords, (wrote Perplexed Pensioner of Reeseville)

“When we knew we’d be moving to Maleny, we applied for a PO Box. “When we arrived here on Dec 22nd, 1993, the post office was still in the old house on the corner of Teak St.

“They kept saying (once we presented ourselves in person), that there were no private mailboxes to spare, so we had “poste restante” status for quite a while. Once the new Riverside Centre post office opened, we were finally able to rent our new PO Box: the fee was $40 p.a. (1995-96).

“When I recently received the renewal notice for my standard P.O Box, I could see it was going to cost me $129. Frankly, it seemed a waste of a Pensioner’s Pittance. Australia Post offered a $5 discount if you paid before March 31st (but nothing for pensioners!)

“So, after almost 24 years I have let go of my town lifeline.”

Yes, we hear you, Perplexed Pensioner. We decided there was not enough mail arriving in our private mailbox to justify the expense.

Ironically, when we inquired about getting a six-month mail redirection, we found that these rates too would rise on April 3.

When reviewing essential household mail, I discovered that 80% of our bills and official communiques arrive via email.

In line with similar issues facing postal services in all countries, revenue has been squeezed by online transaction services. Moreover, operating costs in this labour-intensive business (Oz Post employs 36,000 people), keep on rising.

As always, Australia Post is constrained by its obligation to offer postal services to all, no matter where they live.

Next time you gasp at the cost of posting a letter or parcel, Australia Post’s 2016 annual report confirms that losses for its regulated postal service over five years now total $1.29 billion.

Increasing the cost of letter postage from 41c in 1989 to $1 in 2017 does not seem to have done the trick.

Nevertheless, Australia Post returned a profit after tax every year between 2012 and 2014. Though producing its first after-tax loss of $221.7M in 2015, it was in the black again last year ($36.4 million).

Email rules – for now

If I had to mail this newsletter to FOMM subscribers, it would cost more than $500 per week, including envelopes, stamps, printing and labour. That would mean I’d have to pass the cost on to you, dear reader, market forces driving me to embrace the profit ethos.

Australia Post’s letter volumes peaked in 2008, according to its 2016 annual report. In the eight years since, volumes have declined by 41% per letterbox. We have seen this happen in our private mail box too.

Perplexed Pensioner referred us to a blog by Anny, a calendar-maker. She took Australia Post to task in 2014 and again this year for what she sees as price gouging, including a list of PO Box price rises compiled from her records of invoices (from $55 in 2004 to $129 in 2017).

While price increases in recent years have been well above average annual inflation, increases have been smaller since 2014.

“From February, Post Office (PO) Box prices increased by an average of 2.7% across the product range,” an Australia Post spokesperson told FOMM. “Like many businesses, Australia Post is operating in a challenging economic environment with increasing costs and competition.”

Local correspondent Little Bird says the cost of private mail boxes is a can of worms for the minority of Australians who do not have street delivery.

“Because we don’t have street delivery we pay a discounted rate, but I think it’s still a bit rich when everyone else gets their mail delivered for nothing.

“Also, since we live out of town it also means they won’t deliver parcels out here. The Australia Post-aligned couriers won’t deliver here either. (There are some which contract to Australia Post and some which do their own deliveries). So the sender pays a courier rate to have something delivered and it still goes no further than the PO Box.”

Australia Post responded: “Residents living in areas that receive a street delivery service less than once per week can collect mail over the Post Office counter for free. As PO Boxes are an optional delivery service (they), may be eligible to lease a PO Box at a reduced rate.”

Hefty price increases are not uncommon after government-owned essential services are corporatised or privatised.

So let’s be clear about one thing – Australia Post is still 100% owned by the Commonwealth Government. However, since 1989 (when, incidentally, a stamp cost 41c), it has been run as a Government-Owned Corporation.

It is run very much along private company lines – many of its post office shops are privately owned and along the way Australia Post bought its own courier service (StarTrack) to compete with rival courier services.

The Institute of Public Affairs has lobbied for the government to fully privatise Australia Post and found supporters in the Productivity Commission and the Australian competition watchdog (the ACCC).

There are examples aplenty of countries which have done so. Britain privatised the Royal Mail in 2013. Japan Post, which became a government-owned corporation in 2003, was privatised in 2007 and listed on the stock exchange in 2016. Deutsche Post was privatised in 2000.

Australia Post was ranked fourth in a survey of the world’s best postal services, interestingly led by the government-owned and operated US Postal Service

While Australia Post competes with the digital world by offering an array of electronic services, most people just want to post a letter, card or parcel to someone and trust it will arrive within the week.

So while we have cancelled our private mailbox, we can still rely on the humble postie delivering to our letter box. They deserve a medal, going out in all weathers, dodging swooping magpies, skateboarders and hostile dogs. We were given updated figures that show there are 11,000 ‘posties’ servicing 11, 240 postal routes around Australia. Motorcycles are used for delivery on about 6,000 routes, bicycles on 900 routes and about 900 intrepid posties walk their routes, all delivering to 11.6 million locations.

On a round-Australia trip in 2015, we encountered a group of 40 men and women riding 110cc ex-‘postie’ bikes from Brisbane to Adelaide via Birdsville and remote desert roads. Members of the group paid about $5,000 each for the privilege. The cost included an ex-‘postie’ bike, all accommodation and support while en-route and a flight home. Riders were encouraged to donate their bikes to Rotary at the end of the ride.

This seems a worthier use of energy than complaining (futilely) about Australia Post and its ongoing quest for profit. You could instead enjoy a vicarious few weeks experiencing much what it must feel like to be an all-weather ‘postie’. You could send postcards to your friends from every destination (at $1 a time), confident in Australia Post’s claim that it delivers 96.2% of domestic mail on time.