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Too much choice could have negative impact on UK saving habits – Moneyfacts data fuels key research

Converted building societies provide excessive numbers of similar savings products, according to a new study by researchers at the University of East Anglia and the University of Surrey.

The research into the current UK retail deposit market shows that converted building societies have introduced and withdrawn deposit accounts with far greater regularity than other financial services firms.

By offering many similar deposit accounts, these financial services firms may confuse customers, discourage the use of deposit accounts and reduce the already low level of UK saving.

Due to be published in this month’s Journal of Financial Regulation and Compliance, the study examined data taken from the Moneyfacts datascreen system. It found that 1018 new deposit accounts were introduced in the UK between 1993 and 2004, and 769 accounts were withdrawn. This high level of deposit account turnover led to a 70 per cent rise in available deposit accounts, from 308 accounts in 1993 to 528 accounts in 2004.

"While customers relish more choice, picking between such a vast number of similar products is hard for many customers," said Dr John Ashton of Norwich Business School and the ESRC Centre for Competition Policy, both based at UEA.

"Introducing and withdrawing savings accounts with such regularity makes the UK savings market difficult to comprehend and use."

This high level of deposit account turnover is not common to all firms, he added. Most high street banks and mutual building societies launched only a modest eight to 12 new accounts between 1993 and 2004. However, other financial services companies such as converted building societies introduced an average of 24 new deposit accounts over this period, with some firms launching in excess of 40 new deposit accounts.

Why some UK firms have chosen to be so active in launching and withdrawing accounts was also addressed by the study and after interviewing 50 top financial executives, three main reasons were identified:

"It is rarely profitable for financial services firms to be truly innovative as competitors will copy their new products."

"Customers are often reluctant to use truly innovative products."

"The role of the firm is to provide profits and beat their competitors; the development of radical innovative products is not a strategic priority."

Dr Laura Costanzo, of the School of Management at the University of Surrey, said: "These causes are partly rooted in the way the financial services industry operates. Culturally, it is a risk-averse industry and managers are not prepared to adopt risky strategies with regard to new product development. The industry is mainly driven by maximisation of shareholder value."

As a consequence, most new products are far from pioneering and usually only slightly different to existing deposit accounts. Most financial services firms do not have any incentive to behave in any other way.

Dr Ashton added: "The huge growth in the number of similar savings products is driven by the profit motive. Firms which really need to make profits from customers’ savings have launched far more new products than other companies."

Stuart Miller | alfa
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