Kenneth Hayne’s Interim Report on The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry was no less shocking in its findings than we all expected.
Greed – the pursuit of short-term profit at the expense of basic standards of honesty was his central conclusion, a conclusion that explains how the disgraceful mess in which the financial industry finds itself had come about. It is as simple as that!
But greed does not arise out of thin air. It is people who create and perpetrate greed. In the case of banks and other financial institutions, it is not these inanimate objects that are responsible; it is the human beings that govern and run them.
So it was with a sense of curiosity that I read the form letter, personally addressed and signed by the new CEO of the Commonwealth Bank, sent to all its customers to inform us how he intends to make it ”a better bank”.
The CBA has given its new CEO a monumental assignment. Is he up to it?
The letter begins with the concession that ”…the banking industry, including the Commonwealth Bank, has been rightly criticised for mistakes we’ve made”, goes on to say he’s sorry for these mistakes, and that his job is to fix them.
So I looked for his solutions.
As if it was a novel idea, he said that the bank would now be ”…focussing on service instead of sales”. Really! In explaining how, he said that the bank had: “changed employee incentives to reward tellers for helping you, not selling products.” How innovative! Later on, he reassured us that from now on the bank would be …making sure that it would: ”only sell products that are right for customers”, and by way of reassurance, that it would be ”compensating customers where we got it wrong”. How generous. How about getting it right in the first place?
Then came the sweeteners: the bank would be ”removing ATM withdrawal fees” and ”providing greater transparency on fees and charges…helping you to avoid fees, save money and stay in control with smarter alerts and notifications”. Won’t that be nice! After years of gouging its customers with fees for no service, fees even after we’re dead, it will now help us save money! And what’s more, the notifications will be ‘smarter’. Thank the Lord for that! Now we’ll be able to see more easily when and how the bank is ripping us off, that is if we’re still alive. What a startling revolution in banking ethics and procedures we’re in for!
But that’s not all! Our CEO goes on: Now the bank will be ”safeguarding our privacy and security”, and what’s more, if there’s a data breach, the bank ”will take quick and effective steps to better protect us…” How electrifying. Has the bank ever workshopped how to keep our data safe in the first place? Now, like good firefighters, they will put out fires quickly and effectively when the place catches alight, hopefully with a full parade of bells and sirens.
He then goes on to tell us what great things the bank is doing: drought relief (that is if the farmer hasn’t already been forced off his land by shonky loan practices), assisting customers experiencing domestic violence (he doesn’t say how), and of course the bank will be assisting ”older customers to protect them from financial abuse”, about which the bank has a derelict record going back for years! What’s more, the bank will ”continue to give to customers facing financial hardship a range of solutions such as deferring, reducing or freezing home loan repayments.” Many out there will be asking why they didn’t receive such largesse when they were in strife.
Our CEO concludes by reassuring us that the bank is ”Getting back to basics”…simplifying our business, and exiting some…” Hopefully, it will exit giving shonky advice via self-interested advisors looking for kickbacks; offering badly designed, unaffordable loans that place life savings in jeopardy; and engaging in dishonest insurance transactions that avoid legitimate claims. A cynic might ask how a bank of the stature of the CBA could have ever been caught up in these fraudulent practices, so nakedly exposed by the Royal Commission.
So my response to our CEO, who concludes by saying that he wants the bank to ”…focus attention on doing a better job for us.” is to ask how it has been doing such a miserable job for so long, which took a lengthy Royal Commission to expose?
The simple fact is that those at the top have handed down the strategies employed by lower echelon bank employees. They knew full well that what they were doing was fraudulent, motivated by greed, and focussed on short-term profit. They have knowingly encouraged employees well down the food chain to do things they would not initiate themselves. They have turned many honest people into dishonest self-serving graspers.
Moreover, they have lied repeatedly to the regulatory bodies, and have even colluded with them to deceive the public and flout the law.
What I would have preferred our CEO to say is that he intends to clean out the senior executives who are responsible for turning a once-respected bank into a disreputable and untrustworthy commercial outfit, dragging down the lower echelon staff to their own grubby level of greed, dishonesty and fraud.
It’s shameful. Despite the assurances our CEO gave in his letter to customers, I have little confidence that he can and will get to the root cause of the bank’s severely damaged reputation, which resides at the top of the organization. Will he be able to remove the crooks that set this fall from grace in motion? Will he be able to change the bank’s culture from the existing one of self-interest, greed and short-term profit to one of a collaborative endeavour between the bank and its customers to protect and advance their interests to the mutual benefit of all? Will he be able to restore basic honesty? Can he fix the mess in his own bank, let alone make any impact at all on the monumental mess in the entire financial industry? Let’s hope he tries!
After all, we’ve heard from the Royal Commission, no one could be blamed for being extremely sceptical. Don’t be surprised if self-interest prevails.
This article by Ad Astra was originally published on The Political Sword.
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