Banks are taking liberties with construction firms – but their payback time will come
I was nearly put off blogging about the banks this week. Originally, I mulled writing how the fee culture – that is, investment bankers getting their dough for completing acquisitions rather than being paid for analysing whether or not the plans were actually a good idea in the first place – led to what now seem to have been the stupidly timed mergers of Barratt and Wilson Bowden, and of Taylor Woodrow and Wimpey.
One banker told me that this would be outrageous – the bankers were simply facilitating these mega-deals. That's probably fair enough, and I will leave the M&A guys and girls alone.
The banks figure that they've got the construction industry over a barrel
However, what I've since heard shows that banks are well and truly taking the p*ss in the current market. A source close to a fairly big family-owned construction group told me that its regular bank – which it has used for a few decades – informed management that it would charge a six-figure “arrangement” fee for a multimillion-pound overdraft that the company might never use. The overdraft is, I understand, renewed annually, which has given the bank the chance to alter the terms of the contract.
The company has extremely low debt, and while the overdraft runs into tens of millions, it's a bit rich of the banks to demand that kind of fee from a valued customer. It's the sort of cost that gets passed on to subbies.
When the upturn happens, these banks could well lose the top-notch customers that were comparatively successful during the recession
It also reminds me of those awful fees that we get on personal bank accounts, most of which appear completely unjustified. If the contractor uses the overdraft, maybe there could be a fee. But if it doesn't, how can the bank justify that charge?
But the banks figure that they've got the construction industry over a barrel. Recent reports have suggested that the sector will be next to feel the pinch in a big way, the credit crunch having already caught up with commercial property and housing development.
I can only think that when the upturn happens, these banks, which so pride themselves in their literature about “relationships” and “partnerships”, could well lose the top-notch customers that were comparatively successful during the recession.
Mark Leftly works on the business desk of the Independent on Sunday. Construction and commercial property are two of the beats he covers on the newspaper. Mark's views should not be confused as being those of the Independent on Sunday.