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FOREIGN EXCHANGE

A tale of two banks

What baffles me is that two of Europe’s largest banks can be so difficult.

September was meant to be the best of times, instead it’s ranking as one of the worst of times for me. I thought we’d moved into the age of the single European payment area (Sepa), but I remain stuck in an epoch of incredulity about how anti-retail the banking industry remains. Despite all the talk of providing a service fit for the 21st century, banking technology and procedures are stuck in the 19th.

My tale of woe begins on September 8, the day I legally sold my house in France. Strangely, I didn’t actually receive the money until September 20, because the local lawyer, know to me and you politely as the notaire, dithered over the release of the funds, which sat idly in an escrow account at the Banque de France. The fact that EUR depo rates are so low offers one small crumb of consolation – at least I didn’t fund much of France’s bureaucratic machinery.

Keenly anticipating the arrival of the money in my account with Credit Agricole, I sent written instructions to transfer the money to Oanda because I wanted to exchange EUR into GBP at a proper rate.

But Non! Zut alors! Credit Agricole wasn’t having that. It would only make a transfer, it told me, “if ordered by means of an original letter authenticated by a recognised authority and accompanied by bank details that certify the details of the account to be credited. Furthermore, the funds can only be transferred into an account opened in your name.”

Obviously, this was most annoying. Especially as I had no idea which recognised authority I should ask. However, I grasped at what I thought was an obvious solution: I would write a cheque out to myself and pay it into my business account at HSBC in the UK and then transfer the money to Oanda. I wasn’t going to let HSBC do the FX transaction because, as much as I like the bank’s EUR/GBP trader, I wasn’t going to give him 150 pips on €400,000. I had subsidised him enough when he was my jub back in the 1980s.

So I popped into my local branch, full of optimism. But how cruelly the world’s local bank dashed my hopes and aspirations. As I was about to pay the cheque in, I asked how long it would take to clear. The answer was six weeks!

I almost fell over in shock. Six weeks? Surely they meant six days. It began to look like the quickest way of getting my money to where I wanted it would be to use carrier pigeons. “What you’re asking me to do is to extend you an overdraft against that cheque,” the branch manager told me. “No, I’m not. I’m trying to access my own money,” I replied. I couldn’t help adding: “See that sign there: ‘The world’s global local bank’? That’s bollocks, isn’t it?”

What baffles me is that two of Europe’s largest banks can be so difficult. It seems every link in the procedural chain is designed to aggravate, inconvenience and cost clients, not service them. In contrast, funds paid to Oanda can be accessed the next day, exchanged at the market rate and transferred at low cost.

As for a ‘global local bank’, that would seem to remain a dream.

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