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Nationwide must exercise power wisely

It’s been just over a year since Nationwide and its 14 million members celebrated the completion of its take-over of Portman.

And with its recent mergers with the Derbyshire and the Cheshire, Nationwide’s member tally has now spiralled to a whopping 15 million.

The circumstances of the latest mergers could not have been more different from the Portman takeover. Members of the Cheshire and the Derbyshire were not given the opportunity to oppose the moves thanks to the Financial Services Authority’s efforts to fast-track the deals.

The FSA evoked powers under the 1968 Building Societies Act that allow takeovers to be ratified by mutual boards rather than members.

Nationwide is living up to its name by planting deep roots in every corner of the country and absorbing the local competition.

It is safe to assume that other small societies will find themselves struggling to compete with giants such as Nationwide. If losses start to outweigh profits and cash flow is tight, these firms could be forced to succumb to takeovers whether they like it or not.

Of course, the credit crunch has forced many companies in the mortgage industry to merge, suspend trading or even close their doors. But while the loss of a firm is never good news there’s an added piquancy when societies go down.

In contrast to banks, societies are often integral to small communities. It is not unusual for customers at smaller societies to buy gifts for staff at Christmas. This is because the firms have the time to help clients confused by their finances and bamboozled by economic jargon.

And staff ask how customers are and mean it, not because it’s the first question on their sales script.

As the country becomes increasingly dominated by corporate giants, it would be a pity if these relationships disappeared.

Nevertheless, if the mutual sector is to survive the current market turmoil it is inevitable that larger societies will have to offer a helping hand to smaller ones.

The Derbyshire and the Cheshire could not have brushed their combined pre-tax half-year losses of £27.5m under the carpet, so while the takeovers by Nationwide may mean the disappearance of two established mutuals from the high street in the long term, they will also help secure the sector’s future.

But it must not be forgotten that with power comes responsibility. A superpower dominating any market can be a dangerous thing and only time will tell if Nationwide’s latest mergers improve its proposition or weaken it.

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