Bankers need to 'Value Shift'!

Al Miller

Sunday, March 04, 2018

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It was my thinking that the ideological wars and real conflicts of rapacious capitalism versus benevolent socialism had long been over. However the recent banking fees conundrum has brought it to the fore once again.

Lynne Sharp Paine wrote an instructive but painful book for profit-driven companies in 2002, titled Value Shift: Why Companies Must Merge Social and Financial Imperatives to Achieve Superior Performance. Perhaps it should be required reading for our bankers here in Jamaica, especially those that are supposed to be locally run and should therefore have the interest of our Jamaican people and nation at heart.

In Value Shift, Paine posits that companies must incorporate strong, positive values in their business strategies. She reminded her readers that in the 80s the concept of business ethics seemed no more than an oxymoron, but with the scandals of 2001 and 2002 attitudes had changed for the better. Some would say that those better attitudes do not seem to have reached our shores and impacted our Jamaican bankers as yet.

Frustration abounds

One distraught Jamaican recently posted on Facebook, “ [Bank name], the new exploiters... the worst bank in Jamaica... ripping off people with their horrendous bank charges!” The post was inundated with colourful agreement and advice.

The victim went on to say, “No justice for people in this country and me nah stop bawl out fe murder... because that is what they are doing... killing us physically, emotionally and financially. [Bank name] is charging $2,800 for cheque leaves (and that is if I go into the bank and collect them) and $2,097 if they are delivered to me by courier!!! When I asked the teller why.. her response is..'I don't know'. Then she explains that the bank is trying to discourage customers from coming to the bank to collect cheque leaves!! Puppa Jesus uno ever hear anything like that... It is a business account and with the approval of the other signatories... I will be moving that account to…”

The inspired ranting continued, “Who is there to protect the customer? The people in this country have no one to look out for them. The Government does not care and the Opposition is just too old and tired to put up a fight!!”

I saw a social media response from the 'old' Opposition. The flyer shouted, “We want justice! Demand that the government supports consumers to stop bank account raids!” The poster is part of a campaign regarding a Bill brought to Parliament by the Member for St Catherine Southern Fitz Jackson. The very same poster says that he has been fighting for the protection of bank customers since 2013.

As we determine to make 2018 the turning point to the new Jamaica, not only must we defeat the crime monster and all the causative and supportive elements, but other critical areas need change. One such area that is vital to our society and its economic strength is the banking sector.

Banking undergirds most financial transactions, making it essential that it operates to serve the best interest of both customers and the nation. We have to ask ourselves, is that the vision and commitment of the banking sector or is it merely self-serving? Are the main players of our banking sector following Lynn Sharp Paine's advice and incorporating strong values in their business strategies, or are they seeking as their primary focus to amass abundant profits for shareholders and often foreign owners at the expense of their customers?

Don't oppress our poor!

We must remind banks that a large number of their customers are poor and working hard to make a living; people for whom $500 is like $100,000 to the bankers and perhaps the top 20 per cent of their customers. Sadly, the strategic business thinkers, developers and decision-makers are seemingly insensitive to this reality.

The designers of the banking systems, methods and pricing of financial products and services are oblivious to the plight of the poor who bank with them, or they plain don't care. For instance, the whole system is built around increasing dependence on the Internet and external online service to customers — forgetting that it is still only about 28 per cent of our people who have Internet access.

They are prematurely and unjustly enforcing First-World standards in our Third World reality. This is not just a banking sector issue, some government ministries and agencies are just as guilty. I am the first to agree that we must modernise and move towards a First-World goal. But functioning like you are there when you are not is foolish, especially when the function is that of penalising those who cannot meet the First-World demands because their circumstances make it impossible.

The net effect of such actions is oppression and increased hardship upon the majority. This happens because the decision-makers are not employing value-based and customer-centred strategies. Customer-driven, love-centred thinking seems to have been displaced by self-centred approaches that encourage strategies that are easier or will make more money for the bank.

Strong nations cannot be built with such rapacious attitudes. The focus has to be on lifting up those at the bottom so that all move forward and none left behind.

The Bible has value

I regard the Bible as more than just a holy book of religious or spiritual concepts; it represents thousands of years of recorded human behaviour, good and bad, that at the least should be instructive for us.

There is even instruction on commerce and banking. Could there be any wisdom there for us, given the current banking conundrum and the recently defeated defence of the people led by Opposition People's National Party Chairman Fitz Jackson?

Take for example the Bible verses of Exodus 22:24, 25 and Leviticus 25:36, paraphrased in current language: “If you lend money to God's people, especially the poor ones, don't charge them excessive, exorbitant interest or increase their loan account through rapacious fees!” Now there's some wisdom that I would support to be applied generally today.

Now don't for one minute think that God is against profit-making. The Parable of the Talents in Matthew 25:14-30 is a good example for us that God expects profit-making in all situations. In fact, from as far back as the book of Genesis there was the stated expectation for humanity to be fruitful and multiply. Sadly many of us have only applied that to sex and reproduction, but the principle must be applied to all areas of our lives.

Who will bell the cat?

If the banking and business sector will not naturally 'Value Shift' then, for sure, it must be the job of our people's representatives to hold them accountable and press them until they do. For the parliamentarians interest had better be the people and best national development, don't you think?

Sadly, this doesn't seem to be the case. Look at the recent response of Parliament to the Bill brought by the Jackson. We are therefore force to ask whose interest are they serving? Very few from either side of the House truly supported the Bill because they do not want to ruffle the feathers of the few — their backers and associates.

Perhaps one of the missing factors is the lack of a truly national bank; a bank that exists to meet the needs of country's poor and even the middle class. A bank whose focus is the efficient provision of affordable banking services and not profits. There remains a large percentage of Jamaicans who are unbanked and underbanked. For many, the cost of banking services is a key deterrent for entry into the formal banking system. We need a bank that is actually interested in lending money for productive enterprises; for start-ups and to back sound business plans. A Grameen-type bank, perhaps. A bank built on mutual trust and a philosophy of lending to the poor to help them help themselves.


So I take this opportunity to join Member of Parliament Fitz Jackson and remind our parliamentarians that their first responsibility is to the people who placed them there, to the poor who have no voice, to the principle of justice for all, and to the God who has given them the privilege of serving the people. Furthermore, they must remember election cometh and we will not forget to remember where they stood.

The banks are in business to make money and must be allowed to do so. However, even the Banking Services Act sets out the 'duty of care' provisions in its existing legislation, which prohibits the charging of dormancy fees that erodes people's deposits.

Making reasonable profits is an undeniable right, but it must be fair and in an atmosphere that empowers and benefit its customers and the nation in which they operate. Most of the fees now being levied on customers are unjust, unreasonable and, in instances, plain greed. Bankers, you are making enough without having to do that. However we cannot be unmindful that actions of Government impact on the banks' profit margins which drives them to seek ways to increase revenues to maintain margins.

Two ways this happens; one, the corporate taxes on banks are higher than on other businesses. They pay 33 per cent and others pay 25 per cent, and then an additional asset tax. This invariably ends up being passed on to the consumer. This needs a rethink and dialogue. Government has to also take responsibility to accelerate free Internet access spaces for the poor and to educate them on the value and how to use it in their interactions with the banks to lower the banks' output cost.

This issue is in danger of becoming a political football and that should be avoided. Let's engage more dialogue between the Government, the banks and civil society representatives for early resolution.

Banking culture must

To charge for changing a cheque, for any reason, is wicked, and the majority of who require this service are poor, hard-working, struggling citizens. It is just downright wrong to charge a fee to poor Miss Mary from up Cascade to visit the bank to deposit her coffee cheque after she has completed back breaking work to harvest her coffee. This is the real Jamaican 'hold dung tek weh'! If a man did tek weh Miss Mary money when she was on the way to the bank, he would be arrested. Yet the banks face no such consequences.

It seems that the banks — us too — have forgotten that when we deposit our money in the bank we are lending the money to them. This is why they pay interest on deposits. Now, imagine when I draw a cheque on my own funds they charge me for processing it, and they will charge you if you to encash it. Plus, in many instances the interest paid on the deposit is insufficient to cover the charges that the bank is imposing to 'keep' my money.

The overall banking culture needs to be revised. There must be a transformational 'Value Shift' towards better care of customers. It appears that the system is moving in a direction perceived to be technologically progressive, but it is lacking in values and moving away from a significant part of the purpose of banking; to serve and help customers to develop and succeed by offering services and lending in a personal relationship with their bank to mutual benefit and shared risk.

Current trends suggest it is an impersonal organisation charged to make super profits, primarily by fees, at the expense of its customers with minimum interaction, minimum lending with no risk, minimum notification of added fee impositions, difficulties to get in, and difficulties to get out, unable to switch account, and deep fellowship with machines.

If you prefer talking to a human then your punishment is to wait half an hour on the phone line with encouraging reminders, “Sorry, all our agents are dealing with other customers, please hold.” Or if you choose to go into your bank your reward is both a long wait and the appearance of a bank charge on your statement for your brightness of wanting to visit your bank and interact with a real person.

Yes, bankers a want to get you angry so you can see the reality of what is happening and move to change.

Are there no independent-thinking banks that will do what customers expect and need? Where are the local indigenous banks to be sensitive to our needs and not be driven by foreign dictates in operational approaches? There is certainly a need for more locally owned banks. But not simply locally owned, more so we need ownership with conscience and with a real concern for the financial empowerment of our people.

Wise Government in the best national interest must make it easy and give incentives for local banks to be established and ensure a level playing field for all to compete. This is surely best for citizens. This was destroyed in earlier times and should now be revised, don't you agree?

Banks ought to be concerned with the wealth creation of our people, with small and medium business development. This is vital to serious sustainable economic growth. Some banks are understandably not as committed to this process. National leadership should understand that reality and govern accordingly.

Others have done it,

I read with interest the purpose statements of the banking associations of some other countries. One of note is Australia's, which is weighted in favour of the customers' interest as opposed to ours where the interest is that of the banks. Outlook makes a big difference in approach.

To open an account is crazily difficult and time-consuming. Much of what is requested is unnecessary and not required in the nations, we are told, that require this of us. Are we a puppet nation, not wise enough to formulate methods that are reasonable and attainable by the majority of our people needing the service? Who suffers the most from the oppressive demands? The poor again! Where are the people's representatives to stand up for them?

Some banks boast that there are no fees for some services, but the service can only be accessed via the Internet. Is Internet free? The poor get lick again! The banks, by and large, are doing a poor job on educating customers. The customer service is not focused on educating or helping the customer for the customer's sake, but on serving them for the benefit of the bank. Sad!

Then there is the issue of staff welfare. The lay-offs to reduce cost, solely for increased profits, despite the large quarterly growth reported, has created in most cases increased workload and longer hours on fewer staff members to the detriment of family life in the short term,, and physical health in the long term. The effects of this will ultimately impact negatively on the society.

Is there not a cause?

The negative aspects that have developed in the banking culture need to change for the good of all and best national development. Fitz Jackson has been carrying the 'Value Shift' revolution for some time now, but it seems to have been defeated in Parliament. But has it been defeated? Is there not a cause? Are there not wise and righteous people who will take up the cause?

If the people's' representatives are not representing their interests, is it time for the people with the help of the church to take further action? I am reminded of an old saying recorded in Psalm 41 and Proverbs 31:8 and 9:

“Blessed is the one who has concern for helpless people. Open your mouth for the mute, for the rights of all who are destitute. Open your mouth, judge righteously, defend the rights of the poor and needy.”

If you are not concerned, if you don't care to take a stand on this issue, perhaps we all need to make a Value Shift and understand that our spiritual imperatives must be merged with socio-economic imperatives if our nation is indeed to become the place to live, work, raise families, and do business.

Rev Al Miller is pastor of Fellowship Tabernacle. Send comments to the Observer or




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