Banking on the code
Aug 20, 2019

The commercial banks operating in Barbados, through their organisation, the Barbados Bankers’ Association, have released a “Code of Banking Practice.”

Officially, the objectives of the code include increasing awareness of customer rights and obligations, and to promote integrity and confidence in the banking system. You betcha, it’s a new day dawning for banking in Barbados.

The launch took place last Thursday at the headquarters of FirstCaribbean International Bank at Warrens and the top brass of several major banks were present.

The organisation’s president, Donna Wellington, said the banks had committed themselves to adhering to its tenets, which included “the fundamentals of banking, including disclosure of information, the operation of bank accounts, information related to fees and charges; lending principles; complaint handling; and fair advertising practice.”

In other words, they are banking on this code to extricate themselves from whatever mess they have found themselves in. Is it a consumer revolt?

I hope you will forgive your humble columnist’s naivité when I say I thought these were already the sine qua non of banking. As in, is the pope Catholic?

Speaking of humour, Ms. Wellington said there was “no shortage of bankers’ jokes,” and bankers in Barbados were often “targeted with the ire of critics,” and so the TBBA was “keen to demonstrate our intent on doing more more to improve our relationship with one of our most important stakeholders - our customers,” and that was the reason for creating the banking code.

I was so jolted by the notion of “bankers’ jokes” that I have to admit I went to the Google during the speechifying and started to read a few. There seem to be plenty, but since I don’t consider bankers funny I had never thought to look. A lot of them are derivatives of old jokes used to deride other professions, but some were okay. (One of the okay ones: “Hospitals report that the hearts of bankers are in strong demand by transplant patients, because they’ve never been used.”)

As I was putting aside my research effort I heard a question being asked by one of the reporters. I did not record it so I can only tell you the thrust of what I heard, which was whether this new code was part of some overall plan to improve the local banking sector’s image with the general public. That summary is a softball version of what was a fairly softball question but my impression of the response was that the banking organization did not want to go there.

A public relations gift was being handed to them and they declined it. They could have said something along the lines of what their president had already outlined, you know, about “demonstrating our intent” to improve relationships. But the reply was that the TBBA did not want to broaden the discussion and preferred to just deal with the code - at least that is how I heard it.

After that, as you might imagine, there were few, if any, other questions. A big chill was now in the air - at least for me. Okay, I had lost interest (bankers’ joke).

My friend Gercine Carter’s efforts to encourage the bankers to speak up and share had been rebuffed, in the cool and cold manner we have come to expect from the best bankers. The message was clear: Don’t ask us anything touchy.

Pause: I want you to know, dear readers, that I am not taking a populist position here, to wit, that these banks are always charging us for everything and it is so unfair, etc. As far as I am concerned, we have had it too easy at the banks, because while we might grumble. we do like to queue up in long lines.

When I have to do it, I find everybody complaining but nobody leaving. The banks will soon be offering refreshing drinks and donuts to anyone who will leave the line and go to the ATM (that was definitely another bankers’ joke). In addition, some of them have unilaterally upgraded our online banking experience to encourage us to do more bill paying and more fund-transferring at the computer.

They are desperately trying to break our love for standing in line - which has become an equivalent to chatting over the fence with your neighbors - because they have already reduced their number of tellers and we are putting too much pressure on them.

But the problem the banks are having is that all this encouragement to do our banking on our phones, laptops and home computers - with punitive costs adding up whenever we physically cross the threshold  into a bank branch - may be having an unintended side effect.

In turning their services into commodities which you can purchase via an ATM or computer or smart phone, the banks may be losing the human touch. (not that they had that much to lose). Whatever loyalty we may have had to any one bank because somewhere in the past the manager gave us a loan when we really needed it, or we loved the friendly faces of the tellers, seems to be dissipating.  

Not only are their customers responding appropriately to being treated like commodity purchasers, but the banks are getting no joy from the top tier either. I am struck by the fact that in some recent financial reports, the banks have been reporting the size of the multi-million dollar “adjustments” they agreed to make on the local government debt they hold, but nobody in government is offering condolences.

All I can remembering hearing from the government is that the banks made over a billion dollars in profits in Barbados over the past decade, suggesting little tea and sympathy coming out of Bay Street for the present write-downs.

A few hours after that press launch, I had to go to the bank. There I saw my branch manager standing outside the front door. She was taking the time to hold the door for a few customers and greeting them with her fruity and sincere hello-how-are-you as they moved past her. A true community banker, I thought. A little later on she was walking around inside the bank, asking customers and staff how things were going.  

I thought: If Gercine had asked her that question she would have tried her best to answer it.

Apr 17, 2019

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