Actions vis-à-vis the consumer / customer

Consumer protection 

We have already seen at length how banks watch over savings, provide credit at a reasonable price and ensure a safe and efficient financial infrastructure. Besides this, consumers and customers also expect transparency with regard to financial products and protection against risks.

To offer this protection, numerous agreements have been entered into in recent months between the Ministry of Finance and Economy and the banking sector, represented by Febelfin.

Talks have also been held in recent months with the regulator, the FSMA. Among other things, these talks led to the Moratorium on particularly complex financial products (and the possible developments in relation to cost transparency). This will ensure that a number of complex products are no longer offered for sale to the general public. The Moratorium is a voluntary agreement concluded between the sector and the FSMA.

Meanwhile, the chapters on market practices and consumer protection in the Economic Law Codex have also been rewritten, with the main aim of offering better protection to the layman who buys financial products. Among other things, the new legislation is designed to create a framework for collective legal proceedings (so-called class action suits).

These measures come on top of the regulatory framework that was developed in Twin Peaks II, the legislation on banking supervision that came into effect in 2011. Twin Peaks II not only increases the power of the National Bank as supervisor of financial institutions, but also that of the Financial Services and Markets Authority (FSMA). Since Twin Peaks II, for example, the FSMA can supervise financial products more closely, provide clearer information about them and better protect the consumer in relation to such products.

By tightening the methods of product labelling, consumers have a better understanding of the risk profile of the products they (want to) buy. Compliance, one of the internal control services within the banks, also pays particular attention to aspects such as product approval (the release of financial products for the market), avoiding conflicts of interest, or the way in which a variable return is calculated. This also provides better protection for the consumer. And in its audit of the banks in 2013, the FSMA will emphasise the way in which financial institutions fulfil their customer care duty.

Ombudsfin

Along with these measures, the familiarity of Ombudsfin, the mediation service in financial disputes, was also increased.

Among other things, this constructed a new website allowing bank customers to also make complaints if they believe their financial institution has treated them discourteously.

In 2012, Ombudsfin received 2,539 files from private individuals, and 125 from businesses.

Almost one in three concerned financial instruments (mainly bonds from countries that had got into difficulty due to the national debt crisis), while a further one in three concerned stolen bank cards. A quarter of the complaints had to do with loans. 85% of complaints from consumers and 61% of those from businesses were resolved.

Sometimes the complaints appeared to be the result of a lack of knowledge of financial products on the part of savers and investors. To rectify this, the financial sector has recently also been focusing expressly on providing information and improving transparency, both with regard to itself and its products.

Training and financial education 

Febelfin Academy, the training institute of the financial sector, focuses on training, for example, both online and in seminars, to give all its employees a uniform, sector-wide basic knowledge of financial services and products. By making training more professional, the financial sector becomes more transparent in its communication and in aligning customer profiles and products. That may help bank employees, but also individual customers, who can gain a better insight into their own portfolios.

From that perspective, on 4 March 2013 the site “My Money and Me” was launched, where consumers can find answers to all their questions about payments, loans, savings, investments and banking.

With “My money and me”, Febelfin wishes to respond to the ever-increasing need for information and transparency about the products and services of financial institutions. The site was therefore conceived as a platform where the consumer can quickly find all the information he needs about payments, savings, loans, investments and banking in a readily understandable form.

At “My Money and Me”, visitors can also take part in an on-line quiz, which tests financial knowledge in twenty questions. After all, a better knowledge of financial products and the way they work is the best guarantee that they will be dealt with correctly.

Code of conduct 

The sector has also undertaken to improve relations with its customers. On 1 August 2012, the financial institutions therefore began implementing a new code of conduct for good banking relations with retail customers.

At the request of Febelfin, this code was developed under the auspices of the Consumer Platform, which since 2008 has brought together representatives of the financial sector and consumer representatives (including OIVO/CRIOC, the Jury for Fair Practices and the Alliance for Families) under the independent chairmanship of Ine Mariën.

The Code of Conduct is structured around seven pillars for good banking relationships and establishes rules of conduct for marketing and advertising. It also provides guidelines for any customers who may have complaints. It applies as a minimum standard that banks must respect in their relations with their customers.

The code was included in the educational material of the Febelfin Academy, the sector’s training institute. Since 15 October 2012, the code has also been available for consultation via the websites of all Febelfin members. The code can also be consulted at www.bonne­relationbancaire.be.

The Code of Conduct for private individuals also supplements the Code of Conduct between banks and businesses in connection with lending, which was developed in 2008 together with various employer’s organisations and which contains the principles to be taken into account by banks in their relations with business clients. In the autumn of 2012, the code was the starting point for the first care programme, and in December 2012 resulted in the campaign “Talk it over with your banker”.

Care programme

The idea for a care programme arose following the announcement of the closure of the Ford plant in Genk. After this announcement, talks were opened between the sector and the Flemish Government to find solutions for the possible repercussions of the closure for companies and consumers. When the restructurings were announced at ArcelorMittal or Caterpillar, a similar care plan was set up to that for Ford Genk. Obviously this was done in consultation with the federal and Walloon governments.

To point the care programme in the right direction, a working group was established in autumn 2012 under the leadership of Erik Dralans, former CEO of ING Belgium.

There are two main components to the care programme:

 
 
  • In a first phase, the financial and social impact is analysed of, for example, the closure of Ford Genk or the restructuring of ArcelorMittal. This impact analysis focuses both on employees of the company in difficulty and on suppliers. The financial institutions contact each of the companies involved as part of their exercise to see what financial and social impact the closure or restructuring will have on the company. Together they can seek out possible solutions. The results of the global analyses are shared bilaterally with the governments concerned
  • There then follows an awareness-raising campaign to encourage consumers to go and talk to their banker if they are experiencing financial problems. This raising of awareness is directed not only at the employees of the companies involved, but at every consumer, regardless of which company he or she works for. 

The data analysis of the financial institutions on the announced closure of Ford Genk showed that on average, Ford Genk employees have EUR 31,800 in outstanding mortgages. Among suppliers, that amount is more than twice as much, namely EUR 65,400. This may well be because the average age of Ford Genk employees is higher than among suppliers. Ford employees often appear to have largely repaid their home loans.

At ArcelorMittal, employees have an average of EUR 68,900 in outstanding mortgages. The amount is probably much higher than at Ford Genk because the steel giant has many more highly qualified executives. These receive a higher salary than the Ford workers, making their mortgage budget bigger. At ArcelorMittal, the amount of the credit yet to be repaid is also significantly higher among employees of suppliers than among those of the steel firm: EUR 93,200.

At the beginning of December 2012, the work on the care programmes led to the campaign “Talk it over with your banker”. This awareness-raising campaign, which can be consulted on the Febelfin website, among others, provides information for all those who are faced with financial problems due to unforeseen circumstances. A dismissal or a prolonged illness can make it difficult to pay off credit.

The financial sector therefore advises people to get in touch with their banker as quickly as possible in the event of an un expected financial twist. Where necessary, the banker can then take measures to reduce the financial monthly burden. This can be done, for example, by extending the term of the mortgage, repaying the credit early or by deferring the payment of capital.

The “Talk it over with your banker!” web pages include an informative folder, a list with the contact details of Belgian financial institutions and the details of a number of helplines that can offer a sympathetic ear or a helping hand.