Memo to journalists and editors at The Australian: when constructing attacks on Wayne Swan, it might be mere carelessness to forget what his political opponents have been doing, but it’s downright negligent to forget what your tame business contacts have said in the past.

Take this morning’s front-page lead claiming that bank bashing “could cost jobs”, all about how Wayne Swan’s “assault on the banks over their mortgage rates and profitability is threatening to backfire, potentially forcing banks to lift interest rates for small business and other sectors of the economy and causing further job losses”. (Like “further job losses”? Further than what? The fictitious 100,000 jobs Judith Sloan claims were lost in 2011?)

For all the criticism that Swan is a poor communicator, and incessant criticism from Joe Hockey that he lacks influence with the banks, the Treasurer proved highly effective in badgering the banks into passing on the full RBA rate cut in December. So now, apparently, Swan’s very success has become another basis for criticism.

Absent from the piece was any mention of the pertinent point that Hockey has been an assiduous basher of the big four banks (David Uren picked up that issue in a separate, far more intelligent piece also in The Oz today). Just ask the ANZ’s Mike Smith who’s the worse populist out of Swan and Hockey.

Indeed, bank bashing has gone on for decades, but it’s had no impact on the big four, which have gotten larger and larger, with a series of record profits that was only interrupted by the GFC.

But the GFC again exposed the real threat to the big banks: their own poor lending. This has been a long-term feature of the big banks’ performance — lending to the likes of Bond Corporation, Allco, Babcock and Brown, Centro, Warwick Fairfax, Mainline, Abe Goldberg, Raptis Group and a host of other well-known failures.

Poor lending does more damage to bank employment and financial performance than anything ever said by politicians. Who can forget how imprudent lending in the 1980s and early 1990s almost saw Westpac collapse? ANZ got the staggers in the 1990s as well after imprudent lending as well. Since then Westpac, the ANZ, NAB and Commonwealth have all lost billions on dodgy loans. The NAB oversaw $5 billion in losses from the Homeside venture in the US a decade ago, which was followed up by the $360 million blown on unauthorised forex options. State banks in Victoria and South Australia, as well as Western Australia no longer even exist because of poor lending and big losses forced their restructuring and sale to sounder organisations. On top of all that there’s the cost of raising $20 billion or more in new capital in 2008-10. That was more than the cost of home loans going bad.

But the inclusion of David Murray, the departing Future Fund chairman, in The Australian’s piece takes the cake.

Murray — he of the weird views on fiscal policy and climate change — knows all about the damage that corporate bashing can do. After all, the Future Fund’s verbal assaults on the Telstra board and management succeeded in removing then chairman Donald McGauchie — who is another of those quoted in this morning’s story, with no sense of the irony of that situation at all by the paper and the article’s authors or even mention of his departure from the Telstra board under pressure from Murray.

Murray also forced out then Telstra CEO Sol Trujillo and in 2010, the Future Fund again launched an attack on Telstra, with Murray criticising CEO David Thodey and the Fund against the election of a new board member and the remuneration report at the 2010 Telstra AGM. All of this was well covered in The Oz.

The campaign helped trash the Telstra share price, damaging the savings of millions of Australians via their super funds and damaged returns to the Future Fund and Australian taxpayers. Murray’s performance was self-defeating on all counts. Since the NBN deal was done and evidence emerged of the new strategy for Telstra introduced by Thodey and endorsed by the board, the share price has recovered strongly (helped by the maintenance of the 28 cents a share dividend). Murray’s criticism of Thodey and Telstra’s chairman now look foolish, churlish even.

Despite this, Murray has been trotted out again by The Australian as some sort of paragon of corporate virtue.

The story also parroted the latest line from the banks, about how any pressure on, or even criticism of, their huge profits would somehow result in a credit squeeze. That was the line coming the Australian Bankers Association and its head, the oleaginous Steve Munchenberg.

”In globally uncertain times, Australia’s banks need a clear signal to investors around the world that our banking system is solid and healthy. A vital sign of this is the profitability of our banks. If investors become concerned with Australia’s strength, they will charge more for the money they lend our banks, compounding bank funding cost pressures. In the worst case, banks would not be able to raise enough money to meet demand, resulting in a credit squeeze.”

This stuff, repeated by Munchenberg on radio this morning in the sort of fruity tones that call to mind the classic definition of a diplomat, “an honest man sent abroad to lie for his country”, is unadulterated rubbish and alarmist nonsense.

Australia is a AAA-rated economy and our 4.25% (4% maybe this afternoon after 2.30pm) official rates is still considerably more than the zero on offer in the UK, US and Japan. Our banks will be able to borrow money here or offshore; it is all a function of cost. For the banks the cost is slimmer profit margins, just as retailers are having to cut their profit expectations at the moment.

The big problem for the banks at the moment isn’t a looming unavailability of funds but that lending in Australia is weak: home lending is at a 34-year low, business and other forms of personal credit are hardly growing. That means lower revenue growth, or even lower revenues, which in turn impose downward pressure on profit margins, just as the higher cost of attracting deposits here and offshore borrowing is eroding profits from the funding side of the margin.

The strong dollar is adding to those pressures as well: when the Aussie dollar was trading about 80 US cents, a $US1 billion got you about $A1.2 billion when you brought it into the country and converted those greenbacks. Now $US1 billion gets you about $A930 million, a huge loss.

But the banks won’t tell you about any of that. Because that would focus attention on their still high levels of profits (and remuneration levels of senior executives and the boards), which is not where they want our attention to be.

Peter Fray

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