Drowning in profit but banks won’t pay for their life buoy

The Commonwealth Bank yesterday reported a record net profit of $7.67 billion, adding to the $23.5 billion in net profits it made in the previous four years.  Yet it remains opposed to the Government’s proposed 0.05% bank levy.  The proceeds of a levy would be saved and used to fish financial institutions out of deep water in the future, rather than relying on taxpayers.

Together the four big banks’ net profits for the past four years have been in excess of $92 billion. So, you would think they would be able to afford to fund the levy without passing it on.

The industry’s lobby group, the Australian Banking Association (ABA), says the levy is unnecessary and the costs associated with it would most likely be passed onto its customers, you and me, rather than let it impact their bottom line.

Hang on, in order to keep the shareholders happy, they are going to sting their customers instead?  But their customers ARE their shareholders.

When the banks’ senior managements say shareholder they mean ‘institutional investor’, conveniently forgetting that institutional investors only manage our money, they don’t own it. They invest on our behalf, but we are the ultimate owners. We are also the taxpayers that would have to bail out a failing bank.

If you have a superannuation fund, you are very likely to have some ownership in bank shares. The S&P/ASX 200 index is a list of the 200 largest companies in Australia by market capitalisation (ie. the number of shares multiplied by the share price). As at 28 June 2013, the big four banks made up four of the top five largest companies, which means most superannuation funds would have some shareholding in one, if not all, of the banks. Many international asset managers are also likely to be invested in these large Australian companies too.

So, given the shareholders, customers and taxpayers are the same people, perhaps there is another way to look at this.

The levy would be an insurance policy against the collapse of a financial pillar of the Australian economy. Surely the banks should fund the levy without punishing the customers, given the money raised by the levy might save them in the event of a crisis. The institutional investors should not punish the banks through selling down their stock if they have a period of flat profit growth due to absorbing the levy, because their clients are the banks’ customers. Also, creating this pool of ‘insurance’ is in the long-term interest of the shareholders because a collapsed bank is worth nothing.

Will more transparency in super funds mean we have more say?

From July next year, superannuation funds are required to tell their members what investments are held in the fund. The question is, along with letting us know what they have bought on our behalf, will the funds also let us know whether they are discussing issues with management and, if so, what they discussed? Will they ask us what we think?

History does not bode well.

In 2008, a Parliamentary Committee found that institutional investors, such as superannuation funds, made decisions about whether to engage with companies based primarily on the economic cost to them. Some found engagement to be a distraction from generating investment returns. These conclusions followed earlier research in 1998  that showed active participation in company decision-making was not high on the agenda of most institutional investors. It found voting decisions made by these institutions were not transparent or prioritised.

So when we get access to all this information, what will it actually mean? Will we have any idea how long shares in companies have been held? Whether there has been any engagement with the management and whether they are engaging on issues that matter to their members.
If you had the chance to influence the senior managements of Australia’s biggest banks, Telstra or the big supermarkets, what would be most important issues to you?

We own the companies

Did you know that every person with a superannuation fund is part of the largest group of owners of Australia’s equity market and bond (debt) market? Probably not. Most people don’t.

Around 40% of the Australian equity market and 30% of the bond market are owned by institutional investors, who manage our money in superannuation funds and other pooled funds.  With more than 70% of adult Australians having some form of superannuation savings, we are a formidable ownership group that is growing all the time.

The same is true of other Western economies. Some  44.9% of the UK’s equity market is owned by pooled accounts, such as UK pension funds, and mutual funds own 24% of the US stock market.

So why is it, that we are becoming  more concerned about corporate behaviour but feel less able to influence decision making?

Well, we outsource the management of our money to institutional investors. Institutional investors include the superannuation funds, pension funds and professional asset managers who are sub-contracted to manage our money. Once we invest in funds, it is hard to get information about what they invest in and how active they are on our behalf.

Perhaps it is time we get involved and start asking questions. Making a profit is not a bad thing, but it is important we start weighing up what is the cost of prioritising endless profit growth.

Collectively, we could be more powerful than we think. We could use our power to get companies to manage for our long-term economic and social future again and not for the short-term gains of the stock market.

Related articles