This week Robert Swift digs into the recently announced Royal Commission.
Today the Australian government announced there would be a Royal Commission established to investigate the banking industry. This was done on receipt, by Treasury, of a letter from ‘the big 4’ requesting such, in order to ‘restore faith in the financial system’.
There will be many comments available on this imminently so ours will be short. We will also mostly ignore the apparent ‘wordsmithing’ whereby the request from the big 4 was to “restore faith in the financial system” rather than investigate the big 4 specifically. That is, “the system is good, we just need folks to be educated” rather than “maybe the system isn’t so healthy; please help us fix it”
Banks have been unpopular in Australia (and elsewhere) for justifiable and unjustifiable reasons. It is not clear that Australian banks have been less well behaved than banks in other countries. It seems that banks are unpopular when they transgress with retail clients or the smaller end of town? Wells Fargo in the USA for example has had problems with mis-selling and over zealous account openings, and it has become the banking pariah, rather than the large investment banks which facilitated a number of ‘grand schemes’ which dwarf the WFC account opening scandal. Greece’s entry into the Euro for example, was facilitated by a sleight of hand on a gargantuan scale by a global investment bank. This has cost far more than any account opening or financial planning ineptitude for retail customers done by CBA or WFC!
Since they have only been as badly behaved with equivalent cultural ‘problems’ as banks elsewhere why then is there a Royal Commission and what damage will be done?
It is a political gesture for a marginal government to appear to listen to the people. It is another ‘populist’ gesture much as the UK referendum was or even the Trump victory. Folks are pretty unhappy and rightfully so.
To get the banks to request the inquiry reduces the impact of the accusation of a ’U turn’ by the government and is a clever manoeuvre.
However a Royal Commission is NOT the best avenue to deal with the banking system and the problems of culture and poor behaviour at the big 4. Ironically a Royal Commission remit SHOULD be established and focus instead on the idea of breaking the oligopoly of the big 4. Somewhere along the line the Australian mantra of “4 pillars” became only 4 rather than at least 4. The problem of concentrated power lies in the decisions of the Rudd government to let Westpac take over St George, and for CBA to then buy Bank West. Four with a few small competitors became four with two of the more viable competitors subsumed. To have an industry which is price competitive needs competition and of that there is now too little. It is also clear that bank owned platforms with bank owned asset managers and tied planner networks is hardly the stuff of competition and low fees for the retail consumer. It is not all the fault of the Rudd government but they sure were nudged into acquiescing to what the big banks wanted.
A Royal Commission is designed to work when there is one major systemic issue and for which bilateral policy change can be agreed.
Inadequate banking competition and the overly powerful banks control of super fund administration in Australia, would be a valid target for a Royal Commission but it appears that this is not the requested objective.
Consequently we guess that this Commission will just be a sniping exercise where tabloid headlines of ‘scandalous policy and unsavoury behaviour’ will be the norm.
Here are our considerations if the toxic cultural norms, inadequate skills and bad incentives are to be improved:-
Our response in conclusion? Prepare for a year of revelations and rumours and heightened volatility in Australian banks. Look elsewhere, especially internationally, for diversification.
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