OPINION: Banking ownership must be made clear

BEWARE of wolves dressed in sheep’s clothing.

During the Global Financial Crisis, two of the major banks acquired a number of competitor financial institutions.

Westpac acquired St George Bank, RAMS, Bank of Melbourne and Bank SA. Commonwealth Bank acquired Bankwest.

These financial institutions had been strong challengers to the big four banks and they marketed themselves as such. 

Since acquisition, these brands have not changed this marketing. To the consumer it would appear that these challenger brands are still in fierce competition with their new owners. 

Some of these sub-brands’ customers are probably not aware that they are, in effect, the customer of a major bank.

Consumers are being misled into thinking there is more competition in the banking sector than is actually the case. 

To be fair, sometimes these sub-brands have different pricing strategies. The problem is that the major banks have made no effort to clarify that these brands are owned, and controlled, by them.

The government and regulators must ensure there is transparency for consumers regarding who owns who in the banking sector.

My colleagues from other Australian customer-owned financial institutions and I are not saying sub-brands need to be banned. 

There are many organisations that run multiple brands. We are simply requesting that the ‘‘ownership’’ of sub-brands be made very clear to the consumer. 

As the head of Credit Union Australia, Chris Whitehead, said in a strongly worded letter to the Australian Securities and Investment Commission (ASIC), we are calling for the holder of the operative Australian financial services licence to feature prominently in any advertising and not be buried in fine print. 

Consumers looking for an alternative to the major banks should be able to be confident that they have found one.

One of the measures the government put in place during the Global Financial Crisis was to guarantee the deposits held in Australian financial institutions. Consumers need to be aware of another issue related to deposits made across these sub-brands.

One little known point about the guarantee is that it  applies only to the licensed entity. 

So a customer of Greater Building Society has up to $250,000 of their deposits  guaranteed by the government. 

Say a consumer who has more than $250,000 in deposits decides to spread them across several financial institutions to ensure all of their money is guaranteed. 

If they spread them across Westpac, St George and Bank of Melbourne, still only $250,000 in total is guaranteed because they are in effect the same bank.

This is not being clearly disclosed.

Figures released this week show the major banks increasing their dominance in the home loan market, accounting for 92.6per cent of all new home loans  in October. 

That is partly because their competitors have one hand tied behind their back. The issue with sub-brands is one of many faced by the so-called “fifth pillar” of banking as it tries to inject some real competition into the financial services sector for the benefit of Australian consumers. 

A full independent inquiry is needed to ensure a more level playing field for all institutions.

Don Magin is CEO of Hunter-based Greater Building Society and chairman of the mutual financial industry association ABACUS.

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