Bank bosses gear up for another inquiry

Colin Brinsden
The heads of the big 4 banks are bracing for a grilling on what cultural changes they've made

With a tortuous royal commission still fresh in their minds and an investigation by the consumer watchdog in the wings, the bosses of the nation's big four banks are heading to Canberra for yet another grilling from federal politicians.

The CEOs of Australia's two largest banks - Commonwealth Bank and Westpac - kick-off the annual check-up in front of the House of Representatives economics committee on Friday.

Chair of the committee, Liberal MP Tim Wilson, believes given the widespread misconduct across the banking sector identified by the royal commission it is important these financial institutions are "held accountable" and are making crucial improvements to restore trust.

As the major banks attempt to make amends for their past misdemeanours, they are facing a challenging time, as evidenced by their annual results in the past couple of weeks.

Commentating on National Australia Bank's 2019 results on Thursday which saw a 10.6 per cent slump in profits, Moody's Investors Service expects margins and earnings will remain under pressure in 2020, especially in consumer banking.

"Lower lending interest rates and low credit growth are likely to further dent group revenue and profits," Moody's vice president Frank Mirenzi says.

Consultants EY, in a broad analysis of the big four results, agrees the "storm clouds show no sign of abating".

EY Oceania banking and capital markets leader, Tim Dring says global market uncertainty, a slowing local economy and ultra-low interest rates, along with increasing consumer and regulatory pressures, heightened competition and significant remediation costs are putting pressure on the banks' performance.

"The banks are also facing additional headwinds in the form of elevated risk and compliance investment requirements and the need for additional remediation provisions," Mr Dring says.

The banks were under the pump last month as Treasurer Josh Frydenberg demanded to know why they again failed to pass on the Reserve Bank's 0.25 per cent cut in full that took the cash rate to a record low 0.75 per cent.

Unhappy with the response, Mr Frydenberg gave the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission the nod of approval to go ahead with an inquiry into how the banks set their interest rates.

The annual parliamentary banking inquiries were the brain child of former prime minister Malcolm Turnbull, who at the time was fending off widespread calls for a royal commission into banking.

The first of these back in 2016 focused on the banks' repeated failure to match cash rate changes since the global financial crisis.

Westpac chief Brian Hartzer told the committee at the time the notion of passing on the entire cash rate cut by the central bank was "essentially inaccurate".

The committee heard that in a low interest rate environment other factors are taken into account, such as a bank's funding mix, made up of customer deposits, short and long-term wholesale funding and equity from shareholders.

Westpac will face the committee first on Friday, followed by CBA in the afternoon.

National Australia Bank and ANZ are due to appear on November 15.