The Bankers Committee, which comprises the Central Bank of Nigeria and Chief Executive Officers of the Money Deposit banks resolved at the end of their meeting last week, to remove ATM charges, and investigate alleged excessive charges imposed on customers and also agreed to increase lending, and reduce interest rates to Micro, Small and Medium Scale Enterprises (MSMEs).  

Although the erstwhile horror of unending queues and rowdy scenes in banking halls may have been largely eliminated, the current dispensation has evolved its own challenges.  For example, the Automatic Teller Machine (ATM) payment system is fraught with unsavoury challenges ranging from constant break in connectivity to card seizure by machines and the embarrassment of unexpectedly empty ATMs in times of need.  Furthermore, there are constant media reports of the irritating hassles encountered when resolving errors generated by the ATM system in customer accounts.

Other areas of dissatisfaction include covert, arbitrary monthly maintenance fees on ATM cards, after CBN abolished the N100 charge on third-party withdrawals.  Governor Lamido Sanusi last week also corroborated these claims when he confirmed that the apex bank had recovered over N6bn for customers that were cheated by banks in the last one year, since the establishment of a Consumer Protection Department!

Incidentally, while the issue of ATM and spurious bank charges generally place a higher burden of frustration on salary income earners, the issue of credit and interest rates impacts more heavily on corporate organizations, particularly the MSMEs, which form the traditional engine of growth in all economies.  

Incidentally, the Lagos Chamber of Commerce and Industries (LCCI) also noted at its recent quarterly press conference on the economy that "the credit situation is still a major problem for investors in the economy.  As with the previous quarters, lending rate was well above 20%.  Many MSMEs still have serious challenge in accessing credit even at this high rate".  The Lagos Chamber also called on government to give due consideration to economic diversification, so as to protect our economy from the impact of the volatility of crude oil prices.

It is trite to remind ourselves that no country has ever successfully grown and/or diversified its industrial base and gross domestic output with cost of funds at over 20%.  Worse still, Micro and Small Enterprises, in spite of relatively more severe deprivations, are institutionally encouraged to patronize micro-finance banks, where they may pay up to 6% (72% per annum) for funds!  

The obvious question that evolves from the above discussion is whether or not the banks can be trusted to work in tandem with the expectation and aspirations of our people and willfully improve quality of banking services and reduce cost of borrowing and stimulate growth.  

The reality, of course, is that banks, like other businesses are profit oriented and would consequently pursue those strategies that yield maximum returns; any attempt to reduce interest rates by fiat would lead to distortions that are characteristic of any market where scarcity or centralized price control prevails.  Consequently, in successful economies, interest rate levels are not independently determined by fiat, but they are rather induced, by the monetary policy and strategy of each respective Central Bank; in other words, the Central Bank rather than commercial banks must bear the blame for prevailing oppressive lending costs.  A payment system in which the CBN unilaterally substitutes hundreds of billions of naira allocations for numerically relatively much smaller quantum of distributable dollar revenue, will continue to unleash the ever-present burden of excess cash in our system and consequently, predicate high CBN Monetary Policy Control Rates, which ultimately induce higher cost of funds in the economy!

Paradoxically, the same CBN, which constantly instigates the systemic cash flush, subsequently 'altruistically' steps in to stem the threat of inflation, and prevent liberal access to the cash surplus by potential borrowers.  To this end, the CBN would offer to pay mouth-watering double-digit interest rates to borrow back from the banks, part of the huge cash flood it self-inflicted on the system.

Indeed, it would be commercially inexcusable for any bank CEO to shun CBN’s offer to pay between 10 and 15% to borrow back and then keep idle, money that government, itself, willfully placed as deposits in the bank accounts of MDAs in the first place.  In other words, in spite of the usual CBN lamentation of its inability to force down interest rates to industrially friendly levels, the reality is that CBN, with its aggressive probably reckless competition for loanable funds in the hands of the banks is actually the enemy of the real sector and not the banks!

Indeed, CBN had, on behalf of the Bankers Committee, often defended as inevitable, the high cost of funds and the unusually wide divergence between deposit (about 5%) and lending rates (above 20%), as it claimed that banks incur peculiarly high operational costs, because of the hostile infrastructural environment, which presumably the real sector, including MSMEs are immune to!

Paradoxically, after the sinking of over N500bn of public funds by AMCON into banks, services remain unsatisfactory, cost of funds remain above 20%, industries remain prostrate, while poverty has deepened nationwide, but the banks are back to winning ways with stupendous profit figures being posted for 2012.

So, in the light of the foregoing, can we really trust the Banking Committee to deliver on their promise to improve banking services and reduce cost of borrowing or is the present resolution of the committee the usual window dressing, akin to the exotic but failed promises of Soludo’s banking consolidation?  

On hindsight, it may be fatal for anyone to hold their breath on the latest promises!