Banking on the Hunter

WHEN the first wave of the global financial crisis struck, the Australian government moved swiftly to protect the nation’s banking industry.

That made sense. A loss of confidence in the banks could have led to panic. If that resulted in serious injury to one or more of the ‘‘four pillars’’ of Australian banking, the costs to the wider economy could have been incalculable.

To prevent that, the government guaranteed bank deposits, actively supplied liquidity and stood aside to allow some big mergers and takeovers that it might have prevented in calmer times.

The measures succeeded, but while that was in itself a good result, it has had a downside.

Now the big four banks are even more dominant than before, creating a new set of challenges for the government.

One of those challenges is to ensure some degree of consumer protection in a climate of reduced competition that practically invites gouging by the big four.

Given the departure of many overseas-based banks and the absorption of home-grown competitors such as BankWest and St George, it is no easy matter to reinstate competition.

But by forcing the banks to remove exit fees on home loans, the government has done what it can.

According to the Reserve Bank, banning exit fees has cut $157million a year out of home loan fees charged by the banks and has also removed one of the main barriers that had prevented borrowers from shopping around for better deals.

Of course, shopping around is only a useful strategy for those with genuine access to alternative lenders.

That’s where the Hunter Region is exceptionally fortunate.

With a long tradition of financial self-help, the Hunter plays host to some of Australia’s best and most dependable regional lenders.

Newcastle Permanent Building Society, the Greater Building Society, Maitland Mutual Building Society and Hunter United Credit Union leap immediately to mind.

Indeed, it seems they have leapt to the minds of hundreds of refugees from the big four banks who, examining the pros and cons of the home loan market, have voted with their feet and backed their own region.

Council’s conduct

SINGLETON Shire Council’s decision to find $500,000 to seal a treacherous piece of dirt road would normally have been unremarkable.

What makes the decision to fix Long Gully and Mountain View Roads noteworthy is the suggestion that the council might not have been able to afford to do the work because of all the money it had spent on legal fees.

Since 2009 the council has managed to burn through about $1.5million, including money spent on controversial ‘‘code of conduct’’ cases against its own councillors.

Those residents who had lobbied for the road repairs are winners. But with so much money irrecoverably lost on legal fees, the council is still a loser.

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