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Yes, Virginia, There is a Banking Royal Commission – Unfortunately

In a matter of days, Santa will be putting the finishing touches on his “Naughty” and “Nice” lists and it remains unclear on which side of the ledger the banks will sit.

It’s an understatement, of course, to suggest the big four (CBA, Westpac, ANZ and NAB) won’t be expecting an outpouring of festive cheer and goodwill from their 17+ million customers this year.

Despite holding around 2.5 trillion of our money, collectively – (and 80% of the nation’s loans) – it’s become almost a national sport to criticise the banks. And, it’s got to be said, with some good reason.

Concerns involving the banking sector date back at least three years, when a Senate committee recommended a royal commission into the Commonwealth Bank’s financial planning scandal. Last year, more wrongdoing was uncovered at CBA’s insurance arm (CommInsure) as well as allegations made against the other majors – ANZ, NAB and Westpac.

But – without trivialising the impact of those scandals on the industry and, more importantly, the individuals and families affected – an expensive and lengthy royal commission is NOT the answer.

The sector is already one of the most highly regulated in the world. Since the financial crisis banks have cooperated with 37 separate reviews, investigations and inquiries, leading to a raft of reforms from FoFA to Professional Standards to name a few.

The current commission – which will run for 12 months, delivering a final report in February 2019, at an estimated cost of $75 million – is unlikely to unearth anything new.

Let’s not be fooled.

This is nothing more than a quick political fix, hastily thrown together by an under-pressure Government at the eleventh hour, to appease disgruntled Nationals senator Barry O’Sullivan and other backbenchers who were prepared to cross the floor and side with Labor and the Greens to pass legislation for an inquiry.

It was inevitable. They knew it. The PM knew it.

Despite spending a year and a half categorically, unequivocally ruling out a royal commission – an inquiry former PM John Howard warned would be “rank socialism’’ – the only option left was to make the best out of a bad situation and set its terms of reference and try to control the mandate.

Malcolm Turnbull, already deeply bruised from the Dual Citizenship fiasco (at the time of writing the Opposition is now in damage control itself over the issue with several of its members potentially being referred to the High Court) appeared weak and out of touch with both his party and the electorate.

Perception is everything in politics and the Prime Minister still appears to be in the pockets of the banks, because the backflip came precisely the day after the banks themselves signed the “permission slip” gifting the PM political cover.

Politics has trumped economics yet again.

On the positive side, the commission has promised a deep dive into more than just the banks and it looks like industry funds could be subjected to some unwelcome scrutiny. In its infamously titled “Rivers of Gold” report released last month, the Institute of Public Affairs found monetary links between a number of industry super funds and the Labor movement, with more than $18 million flowing to trade union organisations over a three-year period. Needless to say it has people talking.

The problem is, there’s always a bigger picture. The risks of staging this inquiry in the full glare of the public spotlight is that you diminish the standing and strength of the banks, and undermine our economy with it.

Granted, the big four are corporate powerhouses, earning billions in profits, but let’s not forget the old State Banks of Victoria and South Australia which collapsed, robbing thousands of customers of their life savings. A strong financial and banking sector provides a significant and crucial buffer to protect us all if the economy experiences a downturn, or worse. It was one of the key reasons Australia was able to withstand the GFC crisis, which forced the closure of 465 banks in the United States alone.

Secondly, some will argue the Tall Poppy Syndrome is alive and well in Australia. We do seem to have a propensity to go after anything that is successful. Look what the mining tax did to the resources industry – our mining companies stopped investing in Australian projects and retreated overseas.  The carbon tax hamstrung the automotive industry, with utilities costs an enormous burden.

Thirdly, banks are the highest taxpayers in Australia – injecting around 14 billion into the government’s coffers each year.

Finally, we simply can’t afford for world markets to lose faith in the big four. The flow-on effects would be disastrous, fuelling potential interest rate rises, asset contraction and a slowing economy.

Even David Murray who led the last extensive review into the financial sector agrees. He has hit out at politicians and regulators fearing that “if the commission forces banks to grant widespread forgiveness of soured loans, it could undermine the entire system”. The Australian Financial Review, 6 December – Bank probe ‘threat to the system’.

It’s a sobering thought.

This may not be a royal commission we had to have, but we’ve got it. And only time will tell what lasting impact it will have, both financially and politically.

As we hang our stockings and trim the tree this time next year, Chief Commissioner Kenneth Hayne will be close to wrapping up the inquiry, putting the finishing touches on the final report for public consumption.

The proof, as always, will be in the pudding.

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