Calling time on clocks to fool the queue

I\'m taken with time and timing this week. Portman has called time on its buy-to-let mortgage, suggesting that this market is running out of time. And NatWest, for which I have some small regard, has banned time from its branches, on the basis that it\'s high time its customers stopped complaining about it.

But Portman first. Its claim that the buy-to-let market is about to implode is hardly radical. There have been mutterings in this direction for a while. But to date its ominous portent doesn’t seem to have found much resonance with other players. During a ring-round yesterday, none of the competitors I spoke to seem spooked enough to drop out.

With an equity cushion of around 20% in most cases, it is hard to see how any lender is going to lose out even if Portman is right. So apart from a temporary blip to arrears statistics and the chore of progressing along the possession route, there seems no compelling reason why lenders should walk away from this niche market, especially when most are increasingly prepared to enter the sub-prime arena. This is potentially more risky and requires substantially more underwriting expertise.

However, this isn’t necessarily the picture for its borrowers, particularly those who have acquired a portfolio of properties. The economics can quickly turn sour if the supply of tenants dries up. So even though I doubt whether Portman’s concern will turn into reality, like endowment sales in the 1980s, sales of buy-to-let loans should at least be accompanied by the health warning that past performance in this market is no guarantee of future returns.

And on to NatWest. It is apparently phasing out time as it refurbishes its offices by not replacing clocks on their walls.

And much to its corporate vexation, the gaff has been blown by an indiscreet and unidentified staff member, who confirms that the rationale is so customers can’t use the clocks to see how long they’ve been waiting for service. But hang on – isn’t this the bank that has been crowing about putting staff back into branches? So with more staff, how come service is slowing down?

Of course there’s a flaw in the rationale anyway because presumably, with all these extra branch-based staff, there’ll always be someone hanging about who customers can ask. In fact they could check the time on arrival and again when they reach the front of the queue – assuming they’d failed to wear their own watch.

But it was the ‘official’ corporate justification that made me weep with laughter -“what we have done in our branches is focus on improvements that best benefit our customers” – presumably so that we can now all better appreciate the feeling of light and space they’ve created on the wall six feet above the ground. Nice one.peter mounty