The Commonwealth Bank’s record $4.5 billion half-year mega-profit, confirmed this morning after a 20% surge in the bank’s shares over the past few months, shows the bank has already shrugged off the scandal in its financial planning division, shrugged off the Murray inquiry, and will likely shrug off a softer economy or recession if it comes to that.
CommBank shares dropped 1% this morning, but there were so few questions from broking analysts about the well-flagged result, the briefing wound up early.
There was one blip in the bank’s profit result, in the wealth management division, where statutory net profit after tax fell 12% to $347 million in the December half, down from $393 million a year ago, but that was due to loss of income from managing its two former listed property trusts. CBA reported growth in funds under advice, inflows to its fund management products, and a 3% rise in operating profit. The bank itself barely touched on wealth — at an operating level, the smallest contributor to earnings of all its division — in this morning’s presentation, mentioning only the soft performance from its insurance business, due to Brisbane’s storms.
There was no mention of compensation payable to victims of the financial advice scandal, which will eventually flow from the Open Advice Review Program chaired by former High Court judge Ian Callinan, but it will be immaterial for a business with almost $23 billion in revenue in just six months. Investors have simply moved on. So has CBA chief Ian Narev, who doesn’t want his tenure defined by the scandal because he wasn’t at the bank when the worst excesses occurred.
The often-ahistorical reporting of the bank’s business means the people who were responsible will escape blame forever. One who escaped blame was Narev’s predecessor Sir Ralph Norris, who retired in 2011 with a $10 million payout, but who former insiders say imported aggressive executives from the US and established the sales-based culture that the recent parliamentary inquiry described as “toxic” .
As for David Murray’s Financial Systems Inquiry push for Australian banks to hold “unquestionably strong” amounts of capital, CBA this morning disclosed formidable tier 1 capital of reserves of 13.3% on an internationally comparable basis — meaning the bank will be able to comply easily, even if the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority adopts all Murray’s recommendations.
CBA finance chief David Craig told analysts that in the wake of the Murray inquiry the outlook for capital requirements was “probably less certain today than it was six months ago” but, in any case, Australian banks already carried more capital against mortgages than almost any other bank regime around the world.
In hindsight, the inquiry is beginning to look like a storm in a teacup, as one analyst said this week, validating criticisms aired last year that Murray — a former CBA chief — was too close to the industry and failed to tackle some of the systemic issues around competition in banking.
APRA is also considering new so-called macro-prudential tools to rein in home lending, but Narev welcomed that this morning, saying it was “exactly what a good regulator ought to be doing … ensuring lending was not getting over-exuberant in a low interest rate environment”. Narev said there was very good alignment between CBA’s existing lending practices and the range of tools the regulator might bring in.
Which leaves the economy; Narev’s statement said while Australia had the foundations to make a successful transition from its dependence on resources investment, confidence was being undermined by global volatility and weaker commodity prices.
“Weak confidence is a significant economic threat,” he said, “businesses need the certainty to invest to create jobs, and households need a greater feeling of security. That requires implementation of a coherent long-term plan that clearly addresses target government debt levels and timeframes, infrastructure priorities, foreign investment, business competitiveness policies and, above all, job creation.”
That’s not the stronger economy Joe Hockey and Tony Abbott described to federal Parliament on Monday. Perhaps Narev is a little bullish: he chided one analyst at this morning’s briefing, saying he was a “brave man” if he was claiming that the RBA was entering an easing cycle.