Has watchdog already made up its mind on CBA?

Generic picture of Commonwealth bank. CBA.Picture by Wayne Taylor 11th September 2017. AFR.
Generic picture of Commonwealth bank. CBA.Picture by Wayne Taylor 11th September 2017. AFR.

Listening to Wayne Byres, the chairman of the financial regulator APRA, being grilled in a parliamentary inquiry on Wednesday, it's hard to escape a keen sense that it thinks that there isn't too much fundamentally wrong at the Commonwealth Bank despite having launched an unprecedented prudential inquiry into it.

Indeed Byres needed to defend the regulator after an observation from one panel member, Matt Keogh, that the outcome sounded as if it was positively predetermined before the inquiry had even begun.

It was a fair comment given the number of times Byres sought to emphasise the inquiry would aim to restore public confidence in the Commonwealth Bank of Australia in the wake of the relentless scandals it has been involved with over the past couple of years.

The CBA needed a circuit breaker, Byres told the committee of legislators, because it didn't have the community's trust that it could undertake its own investigation and implement the changes needed.

It sounded as if APRA was suggesting it was trying to do the CBA a service, rather than looking at finding big and punishable offences.

Byres told the committee that CBA had wanted to choose its own independent person to conduct an inquiry but that APRA wanted to take the role because it needed to be transparent.

APRA announced its inquiry into CBA only after that final straw from Austrac - that it allegedly broke anti-money laundering laws more than 53,000 times. But Byres told the house of representatives inquiry that it had been aware Austrac had been looking into the issues at the bank earlier but were still satisfied at the CBA's risk management processes and didn't explore or seek to pass judgement on the money laundering issues because it "wasn't our area of expertise".

As Byres puts it, 'there isn't any suggestion that this affects the soundness of the bank ... CBA is sound, well-capitalised and no threat to the stability of the system".

In terms of CBA's profitability, Byres doesn't seem at all concerned, saying it's negligible in terms of loss of customers or deposits.

The investment market seems to have taken a different view. It wiped about $5.8 billion off the value of CBA's market capitalisation on the day Austrac declared it was taking legal action against the bank and is now down almost 10 per cent since the Austrac announcement.

Meanwhile the parliamentary committee also had questions about the make-up of the three-person panel tasked to oversee APRA's inquiry into CBA.

In particular, Keogh questioned the appropriateness of having former APRA chairman John Laker on the panel if it is found that some of CBA's issues were around under his watch and thus questioned his oversight.

"I don't pretend this is divorced from APRA - it may reveal things ... If issues are identified, these issues would be called out," Byers said.

Gillian Broadbent's independence was also brought into question given she is the chairman of a large reinsurance company and the panel will be looking at CBA's insurance business CommInsure.

It's a tough call for APRA given that it needed to find well-regarded people with sufficient expertise to get across all the issues.

While CBA received the lion's share of interest from the parliamentary committee members, Byres found himself having to defend the banks' decisions to increase their interest rates in response to tougher regulations on interest-only loans.

Liberal MP David Coleman suggested the rate hikes were all about increasing profits rather than about new prudential limits.

Byres said the announcements from the banks on this issue were carefully worded and that while banks were not told by APRA to increase rates, these hikes were one of the levers banks used to curb the growth in interest only loans.

Byres defended the banks, saying that while APRA "has been blamed for all sorts of things", it was difficult for banks to know the impact of their pricing changes on demand for loans.

Coleman seemed fairly confident that when the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) had been over internal bank correspondence with a fine tooth comb, it might find that greed was the banks' motive and APRA might be red faced having not taken them to task for misleading statements.

The ACCC certainly has a history of tough independence.


This story Has watchdog already made up its mind on CBA? first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.