Inquiry refers scandal-hit Australian banks to watchdogs

Australian banks admitted to failing customers and vowed to 'reset' their industry. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

Australian banks admitted to failing customers and vowed to 'reset' their industry. (William West/AFP/Getty Images)

A major inquiry into scandals at Australia’s banking and financial services firms has referred more than 20 cases to regulators for possible prosecution, and called for substantial changes in the sector.

The wide-ranging Royal Commission was called in late 2017 as public outrage mounted over allegations of dodgy financial advice, life insurance and mortgage fraud involving lenders, including the “big four” Australian banks.

Following a year-long investigation, with more than 10 000 submissions and numerous and often-emotional hearings involving affected customers, the Royal Commission called for swathes of rules to be revisited, and for banks to be more heavily regulated or monitored to prevent future misconduct.

“Saying sorry and promising not to do it again has not prevented recurrence,” said the inquiry’s commissioner, former High Court judge Kenneth Hayne.

“The financial services industry is too important to the economy of the nation to allow what has happened in the past to continue or to happen again.”

A key focus of the 76 recommendations was closing legal loopholes and increasing protections for consumers, including through the banning of particularly egregious sales practices in the pension and insurance markets.

The big banks were sharply criticised, with National Australia Bank’s (NAB) chair Ken Henry and chief executive Andrew Thorburn singled out for being unwilling to acknowledge their organisation’s mistakes.

But Hayne stopped short of publicly recommending criminal charges, preferring to leave punishment to regulators — which he said themselves had fallen down on the job and were in need of review.

The report — while extensive — is likely to disappoint some observers who had called for the heads of individual senior executives who allowed or perpetuated the repeated misconduct and breaches.

Treasurer Josh Frydenberg, whose ruling conservative party had opposed the creation of the commission, called it “scathing”.

“From today, the banking sector must change and change forever,” he said, announcing that the government would act on Hayne’s recommendations.

“Our principle focus is on restoring trust in our financial system and delivering better consumer outcomes.”

The banks accepted their “failures have caused deep hurt, suffering and heartache for far too many customers”, Australian Banking Association chief executive Anna Bligh told reporters.

READ MORE: ‘Judgment day’ looms for Australia’s scandal-hit banks

“Importantly, banks accept full responsibilities for these failings and they know that they must now change to ensure that this never happens again.”

Loss of public faith

The report had been seen as an inflection point for the economically vital sector, but analysts said the commission was calling for the tweaking of existing laws rather than the introduction of new ones.

NAB’s credit research head Michael Bush said in a note to clients that many of Hayne’s recommendations had “already been pre-empted by the banks ... or by the industry’s regulators”.

“We therefore don’t see significant negative impacts on the broader economy or on the banks’ own credit quality or external ratings,” he added.

Investors might already think the worst is over, with share prices in the major banks closing around one percent higher ahead on Monday ahead of the report, after days of declines.

A crucial question will be if and when the recommendations are legislated. With national elections due to be called by mid-May and only several parliamentary sitting days before that, there is limited time for laws to be passed or changed.

Meanwhile analysts said the inquiry’s legacy might not be the report or its recommendations, but the harrowing experiences shared by customers during the hearings which added to the public disillusionment with the banking and finance sector.

They included charging bank fees to dead people, or for no service, aggressive selling tactics, and poor advice that led to major financial upheaval for clients.

Banks have already started to address some of the issues raised, such as spinning off their financial advisory arms from their main activities to avoid conflicts of interest.

© Agence France-Presse

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Glenda Kwek

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