Liam Dann 's Opinion

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann: Record bank profit, barely a murmur

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Commonwealth Bank of Australia reported a staggering $9.25 billion net profit - a rise of about 4 per cent. Photo / Getty Images
Commonwealth Bank of Australia reported a staggering $9.25 billion net profit - a rise of about 4 per cent. Photo / Getty Images

ASB and its parent company Commonwealth Bank of Australia both delivered record profit this week.

Locally ASB reported a 21 per cent rise to $685 million. Commonwealth Bank reported a staggering $9.25 billion net profit - a rise of about 4 per cent

The latter figure was the largest profit ever by an Australian company that isn't in the mining sector. It clocks in at about $225 of net profit for every second of the 12 month period.

That's something to think about next time you are in the queue at the bank.

It is an incredible amount of money to be raking in while the rest of the economy is struggling to break even.

But, at the risk of attracting emails from 100 angry anarchists, it is just as well someone's making money.

And if somebody is going to make money it might as well be the people that are looking after ours.

Given the choice, a world where banks make record profits is considerably more stable than one where they make record losses.

In other words New Zealand and Australia are among the most stable economies in the world right now and our banking system has plenty to do with that.

But why are they making such big profits?

There are few things going in their favour. Surviving the global financial crisis was a good start.

The failure of the finance company market in this country and the generally low appetite for risk everywhere is making it easier for local banks to collect cash and self fund their lending.

ASB's deposits grew by 7 per cent to nearly $40 billion last year, at CBA deposits rose to A$60 billion, which equates to 60 per cent of what they need to fund debt. Meanwhile, impairment costs have fallen.

Business lending is rising, up 6 per cent for ASB. And in the home loan market there has been a big shift from fixed rates to floating which the banks prefer, while operating costs are flat.

In Australia they have the added bonus of even stronger economic growth - in the mining states at least.

You'd think though that the big numbers might have sparked a bit of outrage to liven up a business editor's day.

Across the Tasman bank bashing seems to have reached its peak in 2010 when effigies of CBA's boss at the time (Kiwi Ralph Norris) were strung up in the streets and the Labour Government targeted them for raising interest rates too fast.

CBA still has a Kiwi boss - Ian Narev - but this week the profit barely caused a stir.

The banking union put out a firmly worded press release and a journalist asked an awkward question at the results briefing, but that was the extent of it.

Narev was asked if making so much money was embarrassing in the current climate.

He appears to have been ready for it. And his answer reflects the line banks have been taking on this issue since 2010 - clearly with some success.

Narev quickly pointed out that the bank's return on equity - that is the amount of money it made relative to its market value - is not particularly high by ASX standards.

Then he shifted focus to point out that the profits would largely be returned to Australian investors - either through direct investment or through funds in the country's compulsory savings regime.

The thought that the profits were going to Australian families was a reason to be proud not embarrassed, he argued. It is a compelling argument which works well in Australia as the equity-backed retirement funds of ordinary citizens grow larger everyday.

The calmer public reaction to the big profits seems to suggest that it is a line that is working, although falls in mortgage rates in the past two years may be helping too.

New Zealanders will also have exposure to these profits through their KiwiSaver funds, if not through direct investment.

It might be a stretch to expect Kiwis to share their compatriot Narev's pride in the big profit but we can certainly feel some relief.

- NZ Herald

Liam Dann

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann is the Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, overseeing all our business content in print and online. 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.

Read more by Liam Dann

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