23 November 2019
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Or is there more Commission pain in the coming weeks?

Are the banks a buy yet?

Andrew Main
3 July 2018

So, is it time to revisit the beleaguered bank sector, as the Royal Commission picks over evidence of heartless practices towards debt strapped farmers?

The market seems to have thought so since about June 14, when the Big Four’s prices formed a base of sorts.

And that’s despite the fact that there must have been quite a lot of tax loss selling by investors in the run up to June 30.

My back of envelope numbers suggest that since mid June they have climbed between 5.8% (NAB) and 8.7% (CBA) with ANZ and Westpac in between at 6.4  and 7.2 per cent respectively.

As with banging your head against a brick wall and then stopping, it’s that sort of relief we are perhaps feeling.

But there is almost certainly going to be a lot more pain for the banks down the track, starting mostly probably at the end of July.

Royal Commissioner Ken Hayne hasn’t announced it yet but there are going to be two weeks of public hearings into superannuation.

Industry sources are telling me the most likely dates will be from Monday July 31 until Friday August 10. That may have to move as Commissioner Hayne intimated last week that the time table may have to change to allow more room for farming cases.

They are clearly a very emotional subject and we’ve seen several families giving evidence who not only lost their farms but also their homes, which caused a lot of people to wonder why maverick North Queensland MP Bob Katter chose to interrupt proceedings last week to ask the Commissioner to make sure people could feel the “pain and horror” involved.

The Commissioner was too polite to say to give him the riposte he probably deserved: “what do you think we’ve been doing all this time?”

Hayne has also stated that some of the farming case studies had taken longer than anticipated, and more information had been received about those cases.

You won’t need reminding that there has already been some very upsetting evidence in relation to financial advice.

Of the 6,892 submissions the Royal Commission has had so far, 64 per cent of them specifically concerned banking but 10 per cent related to financial advice and 10 per cent to superannuation.

And every time we think the Commission can’t whack the banks any more, something else comes up.

Such as for instance the discovery last week that back in 2012 a Bankwest relationship manager was so keen to earn a bigger bonus for writing more loans that he generated no less than 15 customer complaints and three risk incidents.  But he did get his bonus and a trip to Hayman Island after being named a “rural and regional champion”.

The banker, whose identity has been suppressed, subsequently left Bankwest but his customers were never told the reason for his departure.

And there is plenty of evidence out that that banks are reluctant to give up the practice of encouraging people to borrow more money, which always makes for a lousy prelude to their discovering that the borrowers are having trouble repaying the inflated loans.

So, is there going to be further risk to the banks?

You wouldn’t want to be betting against that.

But there are now going to be two sorts of bank dealing with the Superannuation hearings: those which have just divested themselves of managing superannuation funds, such as ANZ, and the ones which my well be wishing they had.

That’s not to say they can’t make a reasonable living out of offering super products to retail savers: it’s the reputational damage they are likely to face during those super hearings that will be keeping them awake at night.

As a reminder, ANZ sold its major insurance and superannuation business, OnePath, to IOOF in October last year for $975 million.

I understand that the way the Royal Commission works, they go through two or three waves of contacting potential occupiers of the hot seat, starting with anodyne questions about the structure of their operations and moving eventually to questions along the lines of “why did you do that?”

There had been talk that the Industry funds, which make much of the fact that they have better average returns than the retail funds, might get off lightly during the forthcoming hearings but that’s probably wishful thinking.

 It’s no secret that the Coalition front bench only agreed to start the Royal Commission if its remit included the issue of union involvement in the superannuation industry and the issue of having independent directors on industry fund boards.

But you don’t get to be a High Court judge, in this country anyway, by being ostentatiously swayed by one party or another.

Commissioner Hayne is going to keep doing what he’s doing, and almost certainly asking for more time in which to do it, without exercising himself greatly about whose toes the Royal Commission is treading on.

Meaning, if he finds things out during the Superannuation hearings that don’t reflect well on either the retail providers (mostly the banks) or the industry funds, they can expect a spell under the hot lights.

So, are the banks a buy? As the old fashioned brokers used to say, strictly on the back foot. For as long as there’s lingering uncertainty about how they will fare at the Royal Commission, they are unlikely to stage a meaningful rally.


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