Two people use National Australia Bank (NAB) ATMs in Melbourne on Thursday. William West/ AFP
Australia’s big banks — once among the most profitable in the world — are being forced to amass war chests worth billions of dollars to reimburse customers for years of dodgy fees.
Industry heavyweight the National Australia Bank on Thursday became the latest bank to outline the mounting cost of refunding ripped-off customers following a government probe into the sector.
The company announced it had set aside Aus$1.1 billion (US$770 million) in the last financial year to remediate customers.
A year-long Royal Commission exposed rampant bank malpractice that included charging fees to dead people, charging fees for no services at all, aggressive selling tactics and poor advice that led to significant financial upheaval for clients.
The year-long investigation singled out NAB for especially harsh criticism, forcing the departure of the firm’s CEO and chairman.
It “forced us to confront broader issues of how we treat customers,” the bank said in a statement on Thursday.
Earlier this week NAB’s competitor ANZ said it had set aside Aus$928 in remediation costs since the first half of the 2017 financial year and contacted more than 276,000 customers.
Commonwealth Bank and Westpac have taken similar steps.
The total cost for the sector could be as much as Aus$6 billion, according to a Macquarie Research estimate.
The costs — although a fraction of revenues — are beginning to be felt on the banks’ bottom lines, at a time when the housing market is slowing, and they are being asked to increase capital holdings.
Announcing half-yearly earnings, NAB said it would defer the “majority” of management bonuses and cut shareholder dividends by 16 per cent to protect the firm’s balance sheet during a “challenging” period.
NAB said that in the past six months it had put aside Aus$525 million for “customer-related remediation costs,” bringing the total provisions to Aus$1.1 billion.
The bank said there was “potential for additional costs, although the amounts and timing remain uncertain.”
Australia’s central bank will consider cutting interest rates next month, Governor Philip Lowe said on Tuesday as the resource-rich economy looked set to join some of its global counterparts in easing financial conditions to boost growth. Lowe also urged the country’s newly re-elected government
Australia’s strong economic performance of recent decades has allowed its central bank to avoid the kinds of unorthodox policies seen in other countries, but record low rates mean less conventional measures may be needed to tackle new challenges.
Australia’s central bank on Tuesday cut interest rates for the second time in as many months as it strives to revive a sluggish economy and reduce unemployment, a tough task that may yet require even more stimulus.
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