It is always a difficult task to prepare one’s own eulogy. Such was the predicament faced by former ANZ CEO, John McFarlane last week, when he penned a defence of his achievements as head of Australia’s fourth largest bank.
After maintaining a dignified silence in recent years, McFarlane launched a valiant rearguard action in Business Spectator last week, claiming:
By 2007, ANZ was the leading bank globally in the Fortune Global 500 for leadership; the leading bank globally in the Dow Jones Sustainability Index; had the highest staff engagement of all the major companies in Australia; had the leading retail banking customer satisfaction of the major banks; and was rebuilding a sustainable presence and capability in Asia through partnership investments, organic growth, and recruiting experienced Asian executives like Alex Thursby.
There is no doubt that certain cultural aspects of ANZ improved during McFarlane’s tenure, however, overall, in recent years ANZ found itself in the worst position of the Big Four banks and much of that blame must be borne, even unfairly, by the CEO.
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Of McFarlane’s achievements, the bank’s Asian expansion has certainly not so far, been a success. As Eric Johnson pointed out in Fairfax earlier this year:
ANZ has been the most aggressive Australian bank in building its Asian business, but most of the expansion has been through piecemeal acquisitions over the past decade.
Its biggest Asian investment by asset value is a 19 per cent stake in Malaysia’s AMMB Holdings, that nation’s fifth-biggest bank. The stake was valued at $999 million at the end of September, but following falls in AMMB’s shares the market value of ANZ’s holding has dropped to $532 million.
Elsewhere, ANZ has booked its 18 per cent stake in Vietnam’s Saigon Securities at $150 million. But shares in the investment bank have slumped more than 40 per cent since ANZ ruled off its accounts in September, taking Saigon’s total market value to about $330 million.
As for topping the Fortune Global 500 for leadership, it should be remembered that the very same publication deemed Enron America’s “Most Innovative company” for six years straight, with the run only halted by the company’s bankruptcy. Similarly being regarded as having the highest customer satisfaction of the Australian banks must rate alongside being the friendliest prisoner in Pentridge’s H-Division.
With regards to arguably ANZ’s greatest recent folly, its involvement in Opes Prime, McFarlane said, “I do find it curious though that it was Opes’ bankers who bore the brunt of the criticism for investor losses, rather than the organisation and its management that lent the money to investors in the first place.”
McFarlane may correct in a technical sense, but that is to ignore the fact that ANZ branding was plastered across many Opes documents, ANZ employees had a close, almost intertwined relationship with Opes and shortly before the firm’s collapse, ANZ upped its security over Opes’ assets in a deal which substantially worsened the position of Opes clients.
While banks globally have hardly shone in recent years, during his tenure as CEO, ANZ lent hundreds of millions of dollars to the likes of not only Opes Prime, but also Tricom, Primebroker, Centro (a $500 million unsecured facility), US-lender Countrywide, Timbercorp, Great Southern, Pubboy, Hedley Leisure and a host of other corporate failures . A recent increase in provisions led to the bank incurring $3 billion in bad debts for 2009, on top of $1 billion in 2008.
McFarlane noted, “we must remind ourselves, though, that over a decade there are always specific issues that arise in large banks which are a matter of regret in hindsight, but they need to be kept in perspective.”
During his time as CEO ANZ was able to maintain its profit margins largely through the imposition of legally dubious penalty fees of retail customers and a global credit boom. All the while, McFarlane was paid upwards of $35 million while the bank he ran was later revealed to have lost billions due to poor lending practices.
That is a fair dose of perspective.