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Rotting from the head: We need more than a royal commission

The royal commission into the Australian banking system has triggered shocking headlines of abuse, particularly around financial advice. But there is a danger that while the inquiry identifies issues and delivers a regulatory response, it doesn’t get to the core of the problem.

It is my view that the core of the problem lies in the sad decline of a culture of service in financial services, and its replacement with a culture of profit and greed. It is a decline that started with the widespread demutualisation of many of Australia’s great service entities.

A problem in the making

The problems highlighted by the royal commission have been building for a long time. Australia embarked on a demutualisation and corporate conversion of the financial services sector around 25 years ago. State banks and the Commonwealth Bank were privatised and the co-operative regional banks like Advance and St George, while mutuals like AMP, NRMA and National Mutual were demutualised.

The argument at the time, led by international investment bank advisers and other commissioned paid experts (sound familiar?), was that demutualisation would release embedded value, which was “somehow” owned by current members. The contributions of the past and the rights of future members were forgotten, ignored or taken away. The advisers claimed that company structures would create better businesses because they would be profit-focused and would attract better talent through employee profit incentives. They claimed that market place rigours would benefit owners, clients and employees alike. How wrong they were! But they were very well rewarded for their advice.

As we’ve seen at the royal commission, all those arguments have fallen by the wayside – except maybe for employee benefits. There is immense evidence that businesses driven by the profit motive over service motive can destroy themselves.

High salaries and stock incentivised bonuses will not produce better managers today than there were in the past. Instead, we end up with short-term focused management. The royal commission has exposed a plethora of senior financial services management that show little interest in sustaining in perpetuity the businesses for which they are privileged to work.

The AMP is the best example (or is it the worst example?) of an enterprise that since demutualisation has self-destructed or devalued the power and value of its brand. AMP was formed in 1849 as the Australian Mutual Provident Society, a non-profit life insurance company and mutual society. Now, a national icon is no more, its image seriously tarnished.

The AMP’s problems evolved when it was demutualised. That decision turned the organisation from a service orientated “not-for-profit” well regarded across Australia into a profit-focused enterprise. Over time, the incentives have become more employee-focused, well away from the AMP’s heritage of customer focus.

Rotting from the head

The royal commission is uncovering the consequences of a profit-focused financial services enterprise. But the profit focus is demanded by Australia’s shareholders or investor base – either directly or through pooled investment funds. The need to seek wealth creation is the focus of retirement savers and that is mandated in Australia. However, it requires more than higher profit numbers to create sustainable value and that is the unsavoury lesson being learnt by many public company boards.

Another observation is that many of the leaders of major financial companies were not brought through the business. Very few have any experience in a member- or customer-focused mutual. Many have resumes that proudly proclaim business school, accounting and legal training but are silent on customer service or ethical business training.

There are too many financial services management teams and boards dominated by people who have no heritage in the businesses or industries they manage or oversee. The consequences are clear – they simply haven’t ensured either valuable or quality services for their customers and they haven’t protected the brand value of their businesses.

At the same time, shareholders have disengaged. The power of shareholders to make change has been stymied by the power of major super fund investors and large offshore index investors. The major institutions being exposed by the royal commission are significantly owned by many of their direct competitors, which oversee pooled funds management operations. That also leads to an unsavoury outcome: some fund managers may benefit from wounded competitors. They will only seek change when public disquiet – like now – becomes over-bearing. So, the AMP board will finally be held to account by the industry funds – but it has taken far too long.

Today, companies are more likely to be sued in class actions for misdemeanours than directed by active shareholders to change. That is an unfortunate outcome of poor governance and poor boards. Class actions benefit the legal fraternity more than disaffected investors and the costs are rising across the community at large. There will be a flood of class actions arising from this royal commission and that is a very poor outcome.

Away from the legal claims, there is the ethical consequence of excessive payments granted to the management of financial institutions. Excessive executive pay adds to a culture of greed and envy inside those institutions. The royal commission may have exposed this consequence, but not its cause.

Lower and middle management look up and see their CEO and (increasingly) chairman being paid extraordinary amounts of money. Senior executive management are commonly being paid millions of dollars of base salary with the potential to double that with no consequence for destroying value or a brand. A bank CEO can work for five years and make a $25 million turn. A bank chairman is now being paid many hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, ridiculous amounts of money that are not based on performance.

The problem with remuneration of this type is that it doesn’t reward risk or penalise poor management. The business leaders are the custodians of major institutions. They did not build them. Their remuneration should reflect this fact.

The culture of these institutions is driven from the top. It doesn’t start at the bottom and flow up. People are led by example. The focus on short-term gain, on profit, on share price, on a five-year contract, maximising the wealth of the management team creates poor outcomes. Is there really any wonder that staff operate with greed and envy if that is exactly what their senior executives present?

Reflex response

Despite ingrained cultural problems, what we’re likely to see in response to the royal commission is a knee-jerk reaction on top of much needed change. The first is greater regulation (akin to a “tighter Band-Aid”). Another will be the enforcement of stronger “internal audit” regimes inside advisory businesses, and these are well overdue.

Many advisory firms inside banks will be sold off as senior management and boards panic under the hot glare of public scrutiny. It will be unfortunate if the people that mismanaged these businesses should manage their sale or benefit (a bonus entitlement) from the sale.

By selling out of “wealth advice”, the banks and other institutions are effectively saying that it is not possible to ethically manage a wealth advisory and wealth product business. Society should question why ethical behaviour should be such a hard undertaking; why will unethical behaviour inside an institution improve if it is not directly addressed?

If the institutions being examined by the royal commission were mutuals and focused on client services, would we have the cultural and ethical problems that are now presented? The mutual of the late 1980s and early 1990s had few problems in offering client’s multiple financial services, from deposit taking to lending, mortgages, personal finance, into wealth management, advice and insurance products.

The mutual culture has been destroyed by greed. Culture is very hard to build but so easy to lose. Indeed, very few public companies have built or sustained an enduring ethical culture. Across the world, many major companies are being exposed with significant ethical shortcomings.

Who will provide advice?

Today our major banks are declaring that it’s easier to sell off financial advisory businesses than to fix their culture. We predict that in a decade they will be buying those businesses back because high quality financial services do sit well inside a strong and ethical financial institution. People are naturally attracted to strong and enduring service providers.

Rather than the difficult but rewarding endeavour for management to deal with the cancer sitting inside their companies they will take the easy road – cut out the cancer and throw it away. But in doing so, they will neither acknowledge nor take responsibility for the capital lost on a false business premise, simply described as the pushing of product and services via commissions and customer lock-up arrangements.

Shareholders and indeed society should be pressing these entities to fix the problems. They are household trusted brands, and many were built over decades with public trust in their services. The problem with the jettisoning of financial advice by institutions is that it disregards the massive issue facing Australians: their need for financial advice. If our largest four to five institutions leave the advice industry, who will fill the void, and can it be properly regulated?

Australia has $3.5 trillion of declared investable assets – $2.4 trillion housed in super and $1 trillion in household investments outside the residence. Overwhelmingly, the beneficiaries of those funds have little financial nous.

Financial, superannuation and tax laws are highly complex, as are estate planning laws and the ongoing management of investment portfolios. For instance, if Labor’s proposed changes to franking credits become law, where will the average person go to seek advice?

Financial advice is as important as legal or medical advice. On a personal level, I recall that when my father, suffering from advanced dementia, needed to move into high-care management, high level financial advice was needed. The financial arrangements were so complex that even an industry “insider” needed planning by a specialist. Our family drew comfort in seeking help from a specialist working for a creditable major institution.

It will be interesting to see if independent financial advisers can fill the void created by the withdrawing of the majors and the increasing demands of an ageing population.

A difficult conversation

The management and boards of major institutions need to behave like custodians, not only of shareholders, but of employees and customers as well. Great institutions will trade in perpetuity – the banks and insurance companies have been around for decades and some for a hundred years. Westpac was founded in 1817.

This royal commission is a wake-up call to Australia. It has uncovered poor and unethical behaviour. However, it won’t investigate the reasons, some of which can be directly traced back to demutualisation.

But can we go back to mutualisation? Probably not.

Therefore, we need to understand the consequences of what our society has created. We also need to have a very direct conversation with our business leaders and tell them that there is more to being a good CEO than driving the business solely for profit.

Being a CEO is also about ensuring that a business is perpetual; that there is life after the leader goes. It is an ethical backbone that creates a sustainable and profitable business, operating within a community, a society. Excessive remuneration and bonuses must be reviewed; that action alone will create a framework for better business ethics and corporate culture. Leadership is critically important for the institutions currently being exposed by the royal commission.

Across the country, away from the financial services sector, the Business Council of Australia needs to better entrench ethical standards. Society demands a lot from our politicians ethically, we need to have the same demands upon business leaders.

This is a difficult conversation, but it is worth having. Those managers and business leaders not up for the conversation and the necessary consequences need to be moved on – urgently. Those that stay for the journey need to be rewarded by acknowledgement rather than simply dollars.

John Abernethy is chief investment officer and managing director at Clime Asset Management. 

Rotting from the head: We need more than a royal commission
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