Something wickedly wrong hounds our banking system

TRY opening a savings account at any bank and the new accounts clerk will run you through a litany of rules and regulations that boil down to you—the depositor—getting penalized for each and every infraction that at the end of the day you’ll find that your hard earned money has been lost to fines for not observing such miniscule conditions as not being able to maintain an average monthly maintaining balance.

For all that hassle, your savings account must not fall below P10,000 a month to earn a lousy interest rate of 0.25 percent a year equivalent to P25, or an even lousier annual interest rate of 0.10 percent for a monthly maintaining balance of P1,000—that’s a measly P1 a year.

What’s even more irritating is that the banks have the temerity to entice us to put our money in their trust, using celebrity endorsers as a sure way to lure the unwary client.

Yet, banks seem to have the trust and confidence of depositors even after the recent electronic glitches that troubled more than 1.5 million accounts of the Bank of the Philippine Islands (BPI) last month and the skimming attack on the accounts of depositors of BDO Unibank a week later.

Then, on Friday, we woke up to the news that Metropolitan Bank & Trust Co., the second largest bank in the country after BDO Unibank, was compromised to the tune of something like P1.75 billion in loans supposedly stolen by a loyal and trusted vice president of the bank and diverted electronically into other accounts not necessarily in Metrobank.

But the actual amount remains a mystery so far, because it has been reported that Metrobank may have lost as much as P2.5 billion after the vice president, Maria Victoria Lopez, supposedly moved loans that have been disbursed into fake accounts under the name of Universal Robina Corp., one of Metrobank’s largest corporate clients.

Obviously, the integrity of banks—particularly banks that are supposedly too big to fail—has been found wanting in light of these events that compromised the accounts of both corporate and individual clients.

On that note, here’s a word of advice to newly-appointed central bank Governor Nestor Espenilla Jr.: Show some teeth in your core function as regulator of the banking industry, not just smiles for the camera. Assure the depositors that their money is safe and sound—even while earning lousy interest rates—in the hands of unscrupulous bankers whose main thrust is to make billions of pesos seemingly at the expense of their clients.

In fairness though, what happened at Metrobank was the work of one super greedy individual apparently out to make a killing before she retires. In fact, Maria Victoria Lopez, who makes something like P250,000 a month or P3,000,000 a year, excluding bonuses, supposedly owns nine cars, said NBI spokesperson Ferdinand Lavin when Lopez was presented to the media on Friday.

In the case of BPI, it was the work of a lone programmer that caused double posting of transactions in the clients’ accounts that forced the bank to disable its electronic banking system until the errors were rectified. For BDO Unibank, it was the work of fraudsters who skimmed money from automated teller machines.

But in truth, one bad apple does spoil the whole bunch. And the confluence of theft, skimming and electronic glitches that hound the banking system leave the industry bruised and battered. To paraphrase the National Bureau of Investigation: the integrity of the banking system was the casualty in the qualified theft that happened at Metrobank.

It is up to the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas and the individual banks and financial institutions it supervises to clean up this mess and assure the depositors that there is nothing wickedly wrong with the banking system by regulating the industry—not just working up to the media for publicity stunts—and cleaning up their ranks with wickedly bad people. You owe it to your clients.

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