Menu Close
The scope for systems like universal banking is smaller in an age where consumers can shop around for financial products. TRACEY NEARMY/AAP

It’s time we broke up the retail arms of Australia’s Big Four banks

The idea of separating out the arms of the “Big Four” banks like insurance and superannuation from their core banking business is gaining traction in Australia. It featured in the Greens’ banking and finance election policy. However this is not a new idea; Australia is just catching up to banking reforms already made by the UK.

The proposals by the Greens are, in international terms, actually quite tame. The Greens talk about “looking at breaking up the banks,” rather than actually breaking them up. They also suggest applying a “tax deductible levy of 0.20% on the asset base of institutions worth greater than $100 billion” on the “too big to fail” Big Four.

Other jurisdictions have gone much further than the Green’s proposals. For example, following the recommendations of the Vickers’ Inquiry into the UK banking system, banks with assets over £25 billion, will be required from 2017 to split off their retail banking activities into separately managed entities that can be floated off, if the holding company goes belly up. Similar rules are also to be enacted throughout the European Union.

Far from local banks being well-regulated, the latest research on managing systemic risk by the Bank of England shows that Australian banks are simultaneously extreme outliers, in regards to size relative to GDP, yet among the lowest of their peers as regards capital requirements. This is extremely risky, especially given the banks’ exposure to the Australian housing market.

The Australian taxpayer is providing a guarantee for such risky behaviour which the Reserve Bank estimates to be worth some $3.5 billion per year to the big four banks.

One of the Green’s proposed considerations is to investigate:

“The nature of vertically integrated business models, including: i. the integration of everyday banking, financial planning, wealth management and insurance within a single entity; ii. whether the incentives provided encourage illegal or unethical conduct; and iii. whether the incentives provided are aligned with the duty of care to customers.”

This term “vertical integration” is a classic illustration of the problems that arise in so-called Universal Banking. The concept of Universal Banking, sometimes called a “financial supermarket”, in which many financial services are sold under the one roof, goes back to the 19th century in Germany.

This is where German banks not only took deposits and made loans, but also funded and even made equity investments in companies. This one-stop shop was credited with helping to make Germany an industrial superpower in the late 19th century.

On the other hand in the UK and USA, there was strict separation of retail banks and so-called investment (or merchant) banks. In the USA, this separation was enshrined in the famous/infamous Glass Steagall Act of 1933 which was an outcome of the Pecora Commission into the Wall Street Crash of 1929.

In the UK, a strict separation lasted until 1984, when the Thatcher government implemented the so-called Big Bang, which broke down the barriers between commercial and merchant banks. Subsequently, there was a massive consolidation of banks, merchant banks and eventually building societies.

US banks, such as Citicorp and JPMorgan, joined in the takeovers of UK firms even though technically it was still forbidden in the USA. However in 1999, after pressure in the industry and with almost unanimous congressional support, the Glass Steagall Act was repealed and the concept of a one-stop shop for financial products became the accepted business model around the world.

In Australia in the year 2000, NAB acquired MLC Life Limited, which was the insurance and investment arm of Lend Lease. Soon afterwards the other big three Australian banks followed suit, acquiring investment firms and insurance companies. For example, Colonial Mutual insurance was acquired by the Commonwealth Bank to become its scandal-ridden CommInsure subsidiary.

The prevailing model of Universal Banking in Australia is barely 15 years old.

Why did Universal Banking become the accepted model around the world?

There are two arguments usually put forward for Universal Banking: economies of “scale” and economies of “scope.” The argument for scale is, the bigger a bank is, the better it can leverage its resources, especially expensive technology. The more depositors a bank has the more money it can lend and in a sort of virtuous circle, the more depositors the bank can attract, always provided that the banks treat their depositors fairly, of course.

Scale is important. For comparison, the largest retail bank in the world by market capitalisation is the US based Wells Fargo bank which has some 70 million customers worldwide, mainly in the USA. That is about three times the population of Australia.

Last financial year, Wells declared net income of around A$30 billion (US$ 22.9 billion) which is almost identical to the total declared by the Big Four banks. On a per customer basis then, Wells appears not to be as efficient as Australian banks, or just possibly Australian customers may be getting a very raw deal from their banks.

Economies of scope means that a bank, using its presence in the market, can expand the products it sells to existing and new customers. This so-called cross-selling is infuriatingly obvious in Australian banks.

Under a universal banking system banks are offering customers other types of products, they may or may not want. Alan Clark/Flickr, CC BY-ND

An example of this is a consumer, when attempting merely to pay in a cheque, can be bombarded with questions about whether they would like insurance with that. It is a form of diversification, expanding and hopefully stabilising sources of income.

In pursuit of scope, the largest Australian banks have all acquired investment management and insurance companies, bundling these acquisitions up into fashionable “Wealth Management” units. According to KPMG, these units provided a 25% of the Big Four’s profits in 2015. The problem is that the Big Four banks have proved to be not very good at “wealth management.”

The original reason for diving into the wealth management business was the pot of gold that is Australian superannuation, which is growing year on year through mandatory contributions and today sits at just over A$2 trillion – who could lose? Certainly not the superannuation funds managers.

But could they outperform others? Unfortunately not, as the largest bank-owned retail funds consistently underperform not-for profit industry funds - not really surprising as industry funds operate on a not-for-profit basis.

And all the while, people are deserting the retail sector in droves to run their own Self-Managed Superannuation Funds (SMSFs). In 2016, self-managed assets total some A$592 billion or 30% of the total super pot of just over A$2 trillion, exceeding the retail sector and growing each month.

If the prospect was only ever little more than a pipe-dream, it became a nightmare as pensioners lost their savings in the GFC, created incidentally by banks. And today the prospect of even the middle class living in poverty in retirement has become a reality. In Australia, with the average super balance for men at retirement being just less than $300,000 (much less for women), ASFA, the industry body for super funds, concludes that" many recent retirees will need to substantially rely on the Age Pension in their retirement".

Is the rationale for seeking economies of scope still valid?

Technology has changed everything. In the 20th century, people still went into banks to withdraw or deposit money, to make payments, to ask for a mortgage or to talk about investments.

It was quite possible then for the banks to catch customers at the counter and sell them something they may not want or need but nonetheless may be good for them, like an insurance policy.

But a lot of people don’t go to banks much anymore. They get cash when they check out at the supermarket.

They visit websites or mortgage brokers when they are looking for a mortgage. They search websites that compare deposit and investments offers, and there are a myriad of ways that people can pay bills or make payments for online goods.

People are deserting bank branches for the internet and the importance of face-to face contact and opportunities to cross-sell have diminished.

If there is no pot of gold at the end of the Wealth Management rainbow for banks nor their customers, then the boards of Australian banks must look to strategies other than Universal Banking.

Unfortunately, the subject of banking reform was not addressed fully by the Financial Systems Inquiry, headed as it was by the architect of CommBank’s vertical integration strategy, and the subject has since become a political football.

The Green’s policy would be seen as a minimum and meek in most other jurisdictions, while the industry’s response is shortsighted and defensive. The subject is too important to be trapped in this stalemate.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,000 academics and researchers from 4,895 institutions.

Register now