The Australian banking cartel and the Federal Government are similar in one respect: they set their fees and charges high, make lots of money, boast about it in terms of profits and dividends for the banks, while the Government has its surplus and spending. But every now and then the Government gives us some of our extra tax payments back in terms of tax cuts at budget or election time.

No such luck with the banks. The only way to get something back from them for customers is to become a shareholder and take the extra dividends and the lurks and perks they occasionally toss your way. There is some accountability for the pollies but not so for the bankers. It’s a one way gravy train, as the past week has shown.

First there was the ANZ with record earnings and solid revenue figures, and then yesterday, St George repeated the dose, and this morning Westpac made its contribution to the great banking cartel profit extravaganza.

Forget all those worries expressed last week about the sharp rise in ANZ’s impaired loans provisions: they were signaled, but focus on the way revenue is growing, and the banks are making a motza. Even though they have had some tough times in the last two months of the year in August and September, and got caught with expensive off balance sheet funding vehicles, our big banks have shrugged off all the woes of the subprime crisis and the credit freeze.

The NAB is due to report next week on 9 November and is expected to report its best profit performance for five years as it finally shakes off the woes from the forex trading and boardroom debacles. The only possible risk is the impact of the credit freeze on its British banking business where there was that nasty run on the Northern Rock bank and where the freeze had a much more dramatic impact.

Westpac said it had a 12.4% rise in annual cash profit to a record $3.507 billion for the year ended 30 September.

The ANZ said cash net profit rose 9.4% to a record $3.924 million and yesterday St George said its earnings rose 11% to $1.16 billion, also a record.  St George Lifted revenue just under 11%, the ANZ by 10% and Westpac by 10.4%, all above forecast and above the growth in the overall banking system.

And Westpac’s impairment charge jumped 29% over the year to $482 million but in the second half, the increase was a much slower, just 8% to $250 million. That may moderate any knee jerk response to the full year figure.

That’s what knocked the ANZ off course last week: a 39% rise in second half provisions for dud loans, but the market failed to take heed of previous warnings from the former management.

But the credit freeze and the policy shambles in Britain in bank regulation on which our system is based, needs re-examining because we have been very lucky. We have the same gaps as Britain does in its prudential regulation of the financial system. There’s no lead regulator which helped allow the Northern Rock debacle to worsen and the run to happen.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
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