Australian banks wade deeper into regulatory quagmire

Westpac Banking Corp is the the second Australian lender after ANZ Banking Group to be dragged to court by regulators over suspected rigging of benchmark interest rates.
Westpac Banking Corp is the the second Australian lender after ANZ Banking Group to be dragged to court by regulators over suspected rigging of benchmark interest rates. PHOTO: REUTERS

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australian banks famously rode out the 2008 financial crisis with barely a scratch, but no longer are they the exemplar of success, as a commodity rout ravages the economy and a growing storm of accusations over misconduct threatens to tar their name.

Last week, Westpac Banking Corp became the second Australian lender after ANZ Banking Group to be dragged to court by regulators over suspected rigging of benchmark interest rates.

Both have denied any wrongdoing, saying they would vigorously defend themselves.

While increased regulatory scrutiny will eventually promote greater compliance, banks could face medium-term financial penalties, denting earnings and shareholder returns in a sector battling stricter capital rules and higher loan losses.

The industry has already been unsettled by probes into wealth mismanagement and insurance scams, and public pressure is piling on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to order a sector-wide inquiry into bank conduct as he campaigns for a federal election in July.

In a speech at Westpac's 199th birthday lunch last week, Turnbull accused banks of sometimes taking advantage of customers but stopped short of seeking a high-level inquiry.

In contrast, Australia's main opposition Labour Party on Friday promised a Royal Commission into the financial sector if it wins July's election.

"We are not denying there have been problems, we are not denying there has to be ongoing scrutiny of the industry,"Australian Bankers' Association chief executive officer Steven Münchenberg said on Friday.

"The question is do we need a Royal Commission to do that? No, we do not."

National Australia Bank's CEO Andrew Thorburn said a Royal Commission would be a "serious distraction".

ANZ CEO Shayne Elliott said such an inquiry could damage Australia's standing among global investors.

"The more immediate impact would be banks suffering some reputational damage," Fitch ratings said last week in a note on Australia's banks.

The Big Four - NAB, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Westpac and ANZ - are among the worst performers on the benchmark S&P/ASX200 index this year, down between 14 per cent and 19 per cent.

Until last year, the banks had boasted a decade of uninterrupted growth and delighted investors with generous dividends. When the 2008 global crisis hit, the banks sailed through with little damage, backed by a resources boom at home.

But as the commodities super-cycle plumbs new lows, the focus is falling on bank loans to Australia's beleaguered agricultural and mining sectors.

The sectors have shed jobs by the thousands, weighing on individual borrowers' ability to pay their mortgages in an already cooling housing market.

Charles Littrell, a senior executive at the Australian Prudential and Regulation Authority, told local media that the concentration of lending by the Big Four in property is a"perpetual concern".

Last year, APRA demanded the banks keep aside a bigger buffer against mortgages, forcing them to raise over A$20 billion (S$20.4 billion).

The regulator is set to announce further measures to increase capital, eroding banks' bottom line. Profit growth is set to ease to low single-digits this financial year, a far cry from the doubling of profits over the past five years. Net interest margins are expected to fall to record lows on stifling competition and higher cost of funds, while loan-loss provisions may hit their highest in five years by the next financial year, according to ThomsonReuters I/B/E/S estimates.

"Credit quality is by far the biggest risk that faces the banks. It can affect earnings, dividends," said Andrew Martin, portfolio manager at Alphinity Investment Management, which holds stakes in the major banks.

"The second one is regulations, and the reason is, ultimately over time, the more regulation there is the more it will pressure returns."