D-Day for Australian Banks as Government to Release Inquiry Report

February 3, 2019 Updated: February 4, 2019

The Australian government is due to release the final recommendations of an independent inquiry on Feb. 4 that exposed systemic wrongdoing in Australia’s financial sector last year, likely leading to sweeping changes to the country’s banking industry.

The big banks, insurers, pension funds, and regulators who oversee the financial industry are bracing for a brutal summary of their misdeeds and weaknesses, and a list of tough recommendations including possible criminal charges.

The Royal Commission was a quasi-judicial independent body led by a former high court judge that was tasked by the government, reluctantly at first, with investigating financial sector misconduct following a string of banking scandals.

For 11 months its public hearings shocked the country and wiped more than AU$60 billion from top financial stocks as investors factored in the prospect of tougher regulations, higher compliance costs, and thinner margins.

Regulators were also grilled by the commission’s barristers about why they seemed reluctant to crack down on wrongdoing, sometimes penalizing firms with little more than a mildly worded press release.

“There will be nothing positive in the recommendations because the banks have clearly breached various obligations in the laws, and obligations to good customer service,” said Matthew Wilson, a banking analyst at Deutsche Bank.

Deutsche Bank, Germany’s biggest commercial bank, on Jan. 14, 2009, in Hamburg, Germany. Deutsche Bank announced today that it is posting a 4.8 billion euro loss for its fourth quarter, and will likely see a total loss for 2008 of 3.9 billion euros, on Jan. 14, 2009, in Hamburg, Germany. (Joern Pollex/Getty Images)

The Royal Commission cannot directly order prosecutions or penalties. Rather, it will deliver a list of recommendations for the government to consider.

Among other things, analysts expect the inquiry will recommend tougher enforcement of responsible lending laws, an end to certain conflicted commissions paid to financial advisors, and limits to executive bonuses.

In a separate, but related ruling on Feb. 4, Australia’s corporate watchdog ordered an arm of the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to stop taking financial-advice fees due to concerns about its charging practices.

People walk past a branch of Australia’s Commonwealth Bank in Melbourne on June 4, 2018. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

The Royal Commission’s report comes ahead of an election expected in May, which opinion polls suggest the centre-left Labor party will win. Labor said it expects to adopt all the commission’s recommendations.

Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who initially dismissed Labor calls for a banking inquiry as a “populist whinge,” has said he also expects to take up most of the recommendations.

But he has warned against overreaching and cutting off credit flows, a likely battle-line for the government as it fights for electoral survival.

Damage Done

Though the final report goes public around 5:10 a.m. local time, the inquiry has already pushed out executives and prompted billions of dollars of customer remediation payments.

The hardest-hit company has been financial planner AMP Ltd, which saw its CEO, chairwoman, chief lawyer, and three directors leave following evidence its board doctored a supposedly independent report to a regulator.

The corporate logo at the headquarters of the Australian fund manager AMP in Sydney on Dec. 17, 2009. (Torsten Blackwood/AFP/Getty Images)

AMP’s shares have more than halved, the biggest decline among the large institutions, amid concerns about retirees pulling funds from the 170-year-old firm. The company, which has denied wrongdoing, issued a profit warning on Jan. 25.

The “Big Four” banksCBA, Westpac Banking Corp, Australia, and New Zealand Banking Group, and National Australia Bank—plus AMP have already committed to paying more than AU$2 billion to wronged customers.

“What will the business look like going forward?” said Sean Sequeira, chief investment officer at Alleron Investment Management.

“Will it just be an infrastructure-style stock without any growth going forward, hampered by regulation? It’s quite possible.”

Shares in the “Big Four” edged about 0.7 percent lower in early trade on Feb. 4, pushing Australia’s financial index down 0.6 percent while the market opened 0.2 percent lower.

By Byron Kaye