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Because Australia’s banking system is so concentrated, the ‘big four’ banks face similar threats. AAP/Joe Castro

Banking outlook: threats from technology, burst of housing bubble, end of mining boom

It’s reporting season, and over the past few weeks some of Australia’s biggest companies have been releasing information on how they’re travelling. These reports reflect key themes of how things are going in key sectors of the economy. Over coming days we’re going to report on the results a handful of major companies in key sectors, transport, construction, retail, mining, insurance and banking. Today we look at the banking sector.

The Australian banking industry is a classic economic ‘oligopoly’ with the so-called ‘Four Pillars’ or ‘Big Four’ (National Australia Bank (NAB), Commonwealth Bank of Australia (CBA), ANZ and Westpac) dominating not only the banking sector but the whole financial sector and arguably the economy.

The big four banks account for over 25% of the market capitalisation of the ASX 200, and are valued at over $360 billion. In total, the four banks reported assets in 2015 of some $3.5 trillion or about 10 times the size of BHP and RIO combined, and profits for their latest financial year of over $30 billion between them.


The risks in Australia’s banking system

In an oligopoly, the dominant players operate a very similar business model. This is true of the Big Four, which operate within a structure known as ‘universal banking’. Not only do each of these behemoths run a traditional retail and business bank, they also have wealth management (mainly retail superannuation fund management) and insurance subsidiaries. To complete the picture, each of the four runs a wholly owned bank in New Zealand, again dominating the banking system in that country. The banks operate throughout Australasia, often with competing branches (and valuable jobs) in each small town - Australia is ‘over banked’.

The risks of having one of the most concentrated banking systems in the world were outlined in 2012 by the International Monetary Fund (IMF), it warned that Australia’s banks had:

“broadly similar business models and reliance on offshore funding leave them exposed to common shocks and disruptions to funding markets. Against a still worrying global environment, these risks will need to be closely monitored, particularly if the domestic economy slows sharply.”

Among the four banks, there is constant jockeying for prominence and any one time one bank climbs to the top of the pile. At the moment, the clear winner is CBA, largest by capitalisation, latest annual profits and staff employed with the lowest Cost to Income Ratio (CIR). Another winner is Westpac, the smallest by assets and employees but with an enviable CIR and Net Interest Margin (NIM) leading to excellent profit results. Meanwhile, NAB trails the others by profitability and with a low NIM and high CIR, will be likely do so for some time. Nonetheless, NAB is by any standards a very profitable company, if a bit overshadowed by the other banks this year.

It should be noted that not all banks report their financial results at the same time in a completely consistent fashion. However each quarter the banks are required to report their risk numbers to the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA), the banking regulator. These so-called APS 330 reports give a picture (albeit slightly murky) of where banks are taking risks and the size of those risks.

These numbers show that the banks hold roughly similar amounts of assets, so-called Risk Weighted Assets (RWA) and associated capital. Although Westpac, being slightly smaller, has about 10% less of each. This data shows Big Four banks are still predominantly lending institutions with about 86% of their Risk Weighted Assets (RWAs) related to credit.

While ANZ has a higher proportion of corporate and business lending than the others, about 23% of its credit (RWAs) relates to retail, mainly residential mortgage, lending. With a few notable exceptions, such as CBAs exposure to interest rate risks and NAB’s operational risks, the risk numbers are similar across the banks.

From an analysis of prior APS 330 reports (not shown), it appears that, although the RWAs for residential mortgages have increased slightly for all banks (mainly because lending has increased), the banking sector has not factored in much additional capital to cover the potential for the busting of a housing bubble.

The large Australian banks will in the next year face headwinds from a number of directions. First, any busting or even deflation of Australia’s real or imagined housing bubble will undoubtedly give the banks serious headaches.

Likewise, the end of the mining boom is already beginning to take its toll on mining companies, even the largest. If the gloom spreads, loans to the sector might be under pressure. Last, but far from least, banking scandals will definitely come to the fore this year especially market manipulation and product misselling.

Disruption from technology

Following the retreats of both NAB and ANZ from their respective overseas forays, it looks like the four banks are going to resemble each other even more as they are all embarking on strategies that target the same Australasian retail, mortgage and business markets. But there is at least one significant point of difference between the banks that might give a clue to potential shifts in future.

In banking, as in other industries, technology is critical. After an outsourcing deal that went sour, in 2008 the CBA board was forced (some say was brave enough) to embark on a complete refresh of its ageing IT systems, often called a Core Systems Replacement (CSR).

After some significant project blowouts, CBA eventually got the CSR to work and their annual profit numbers are beginning to reflect that success. Meanwhile, NAB is in the middle of its almost decade long CSR project (called Nextgen) and is constantly changing its management, which does not bode well for its completion in the near future. On the other hand, the new Chief Information Officer (CIO) of Westpac has denied that the firm needs a CSR, and has embarked on a much needed face-lift to the bank’s ageing systems.

After a number of attempts to change its core systems, the new management of ANZ have just announced that they are hiring an ex-Google executive to become its head of ‘digital banking’ - but to do what is still not certain.

Given the oft repeated fact that some 70% of IT projects fail, it looks like one or more of the banks are in for some big headaches over the next decade.

For this snapshot, the information is collected from the latest annual reports (2014-2015), except for CBA which reported its semi-annual numbers in February 2016. The risk figures are taken from the 2016 December quarter APS 330 reports of the banks to APRA, which are available at the banks’ websites.

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