ATM fees abolition a smoke screen?

One of several “enhanced” ATM’s located in the Alberta Arts District of Portland, Oregon. Photo by Ian Sane

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…