The ‘choice’ offered by the banks can seem like an illusion when you see how many of the smaller players are in fact owned by one of the ‘Big 4’. There’s Aussie, BankWest, BankSA, Bank of Melbourne, St. George, Suncorp and CUA to start. Internet banks including UBank (which admittedly states that it is backed by NAB) and home loan providers such as RAMS (owned by Westpac) are in the same boat.
|New Card Brand||You cannot transfer a balance from these institutions|
|American Express||American Express|
|Bank of Melbourne (BOM)||BOM, BankSA or St.George|
|Bank of Queensland (BOQ)||BOQ, Citi, CUA, or Suncorp|
|BankSA||BOM, BankSA or St.George|
|Commonwealth Bank (Commbank)||Commbank|
|CUA||BOQ, Citi, CUA, or Suncorp|
|HSBC||HSBC or Woolworths|
|IMB||BOQ, Citi, CUA, or Suncorp|
|St.George||BOM, BankSA or St.George|
|Suncorp||BOQ, Citi, CUA, or Suncorp|
|Woolworths||HSBC or Woolworths|
If you look a little more closely at these smaller banks mentioned you’ll find that one of the other out of the CBA, Westpac and NAB is in fact the owner. This makes it confusing when the smaller banks are allowed to market themselves as different, and say they will beat any advertised rate from the big banks – as if they aren’t one and the same (as St. George has done).
The whole situation has led to the Credit Union industry group – ABACUS, lodging a formal complaint to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission asking it to investigate and hopefully require clearer brand messaging from the ‘Big 4’.
You have to know what you’re looking for if you want to be sure who you’re really signing up with, and it turns out the majority of us don’t. In a survey conducted by ABACUS, only half of respondents were aware that St. George is owned by Westpac, and only 37% knew that Westpac also owns Bank of Melbourne. Even less, 28%, knew that Westpac also owns BankSA and just 14% knew that Westpac acquired RAMS home loans in 2008. These are all banks offering products across Australia and marketing themselves as separate and an alternative to the ‘Big 4’. “Requiring major banks to prominently display the ownership of their subsidiaries on all consumer-facing material will better inform consumers and enhance competition in retail banking,” ABACUS spokesperson Daniel McDougall told News Ltd in a recent interview.
When it comes to credit cards and balance transfers, the feature people with credit card debt will find most helpful, the illusion of choice is really no choice at all. It’s usually buried somewhere there in the small print, the sentence telling you that you can’t transfer a balance from the same bank for the same rate. Of course you can always ask – but you aren’t told which banks you can’t do a balance transfer to if there are existing relationships with banks under a different name. This is where it’s easy to get caught out and end up with a credit enquiry on your record and your application being rejected. You’ll also probably have to ask why you were rejected and won’t be automatically told it was such a simple reason which has nothing to do with your credit history.
You might see that the terms and conditions say ‘non-NAB’ or ‘non-Westpac’ bank, for example, but that’s hardly going to help if you don’t even know which banks the NAB or Westpac own. The banks know that they’re excluding a large number of existing customers when they introduce special rates and promotions, and that less end up getting the best deal because of their existing accounts with one of the larger banks.
The bank ownership question might seem irrelevant, but it will matter when you start looking around for a better deal or want to take out a home loan with your existing bank. It’s important to choose carefully and understand the relationships, especially if you are trying to avoid dealing with one of the banks in particular. It can also help you negotiate a better rate, when you tell the bank that you know it’s offering something better under a different name. Be a savvy consumer and let the banks know you can see through the illusion of choice. We’ve made it easy with the table we’ve created, but everyone needs to know about it for it to be effective, so why not share the information and let people discover the banks’ relationships for themselves?
Pauline is a personal finance expert at CreditCard.com.au, with 8 years in money, budgeting and property reporting under her belt. Pauline is passionate about seeing Aussies win by making their money – and their credit cards – work smarter, harder and bigger.
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