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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Bank profits are a price we pay

After nerve-jangling financial meltdowns, it's reassuring to know the Aussie lenders are in good shape.

Australian banks show healthy profits and therefore stability for New Zealand. Photo / Greg Bowker
Australian banks show healthy profits and therefore stability for New Zealand. Photo / Greg Bowker

It should be easy to get angry with banks. But I struggle.

The local division of ANZ delivered a record profit last week - $1.37 billion. In the next seven days we'll most likely see Westpac and BNZ break records too. ASB also delivered a record profit when it reported in August. We'll probably see something like $3.5 billion in banking profits sucked out of the country this year.

That is a big number, particularly if you put it into the context of the kind of money the Government might need to fund school lunches for poor kids, do more hip replacements or things like that.

So I almost feel obliged to pass some kind of judgment on the audacity of these corporations to make such big profits while most of the rest of the economy is struggling.

But after the nerve-jangling financial meltdowns in the past few years it still feels reassuring to know the banking system is in such good shape.

The banks are not about to collapse and lose our money - or to demand that taxpayers bail them out.

Actually, like many mortgage-holding Kiwis, I don't have any money in an Australian bank. I just have a whopping great debt.

If my bank were to collapse I assume somebody somewhere would take over the loan. But I still appreciate the stability. As much as we love to hate the Aussies, I feel more comfortable doing business with them than I would if my mortgage debt was bundled up and sold to some voracious multinational.

In their own defence, over the next few days the banking sector bosses will make the usual points about the profit not being so high if you look at it as return on equity.

In other words, they are such enormous corporations, worth so much money, that these big-profit numbers aren't so big in relative terms. If you rank them against other companies on the Australian stock exchange, the bank results are solid but nowhere near the best performers.

They'll also point out that they spend billions doing business in this country and pay a lot of tax.

Either New Zealanders are apathetic or that message is getting through. It is hard to detect any groundswell of public anger about the bank profits, even though the results are well reported.

Ironically, the Australian public gets angrier about both profits and bank salaries. That's even though the bank bosses across the Tasman can point out that they return dividends to every working Australian through the compulsory superannuation scheme.

Locally, the Green Party did have a bit of a go last week and put out a press release bemoaning ANZ's record profit.

Good on them, they'd be a pretty sorry Green Party if they couldn't muster a bit of anti-globalisation rhetoric in these post-global financial crisis days.

Reading it, though, you couldn't help feeling that even Russel Norman understands that if we want society to function then we need them. And we need them to be strong rather than weak.

The banks are, according to Norman, "strip mining" the nation of capital.

By sidestepping some of the usual anti-capitalist rhetoric he raises an interesting economic point.

It is a shame that in a nation so short of cash we're going to see those billions leave the economy this year. It creates a big hole in our current account.

The thrust of Norman's argument, rather than being anti-bank, is nationalistic. The Greens would like to see Kiwibank given more capital to grow.

Presumably they mean funding from taxpayers and not from partially floating it on the NZX - although the latter plan would have plenty of cheerleaders in financial circles. Either way, there is no harm in looking at how we could retain more bank profits locally.

We could encourage New Zealanders to invest more in the Australian banks. There is nothing to stop us buying a bigger share directly, or through our KiwiSaver fund or the Government's Cullen Fund.

But if we are talking about getting the Government deeper into the private banking business then we must remember that if we want the returns we also have to take on the risk.

The profit that foreign banks take offshore is the price we pay for having outsourced our banking risk to a bigger and wealthier nation.

New Zealand isn't big enough to justify the risk of doing all its own banking in a global economy.

And we can't self-generate the kind of investment capital required to keep us in the First World game.

So even if all our banks were locally owned we'd still be borrowing from Australia and further afield to grow our businesses and farms and to fund our consumer lifestyle.

If the global economy went pear shaped, as it did in 2008, we'd be in a far more perilous position without an Australian banking base.

I'm not that old but I'm old enough to remember how serious it was when the BNZ was on the brink of collapse in the 1980s.

When you look around the world and see the anger that many in Europe and the US feel towards the banking system you can see that it is born of frustration at the unfairness - banks have continued to reap big returns despite having had their failures nationalised and the costs covered by taxpayers.

But the Australasian system has been rock solid. The big banks continue to keep their side of the bargain. And as the risks of the banking business fall then we are going to see their profits rise.

Perhaps that will also mean more opportunity for locally owned banks to grow. If so, well and good. But they should grow cautiously and at their own pace, despite the enthusiastic support they have in some political quarters.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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