Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The 'four pillars' policy

Melbourne Business School’s Professor Ian Harper has written an article in today’s AFR (subscription required) attacking the ‘Four Pillars’ policy recently reindorsed by the Labor Treasurer. This policy limits mergers between the four major Australian banks.

Professor Harper has two main arguments. One is that such a policy is unnecessary since the ACCC has the power to disallow mergers which it sees as not being in the national interest and, in making this determination, the ACCC would be able to sort out the cost-benefit case for allowing or disallowing mergers. The second argument is that the four major Australian are ‘bonsai banks’ that are ‘pot-bound by a regulation which blocks the most natural route to growth and scale’. He asks that the banks be given the ‘same opportunity to grow as any other Australian company’.

None of these arguments seems self-evidently correct.

The ACCC is an agency of government that assists in the promotion of competition in the Australian economy. If successive governments make the judgement that maintaining minimum levels of competition among the banks is a desirable social policy it is entirely appropriate to enact policies which achieve this. What matters here is the government policy itself not whether it hands over responsibility to the ACCC. The only issue is whether the ‘four pillars’ policy is sensible or not.

The second argument is that our banks are too small to realise economies of scale. I am not expert on such matters but it would be nice to see some empirical evidence on this. Are Australian banks with their privileged oligopoly position unable to access funds internationally at the lowest cost? Are costs of managing deposits or making loans locally too high to promote productive efficiency in banking? I would like to see some evidence on this rather than poetic claims about 'bonsai'.

According to Fortune the National Australia Bank is the 239th largest firm by revenues in the world. The Commonwealth Bank is the 340th, the ANZ is 376th and Westpac is the 464th. Ranked among the world’s banks on the basis of revenues the National Australia Bank is 35th largest, the Commonwealth Bank is 45th, ANZ is 50th and Westpac is 56th. Are these banks minnows? Just how big do you need to be to realise economies of scale in banking?

Furthermore, as banks increase in scale is there always an efficiency dividend or are there x-inefficiency concerns? Banks in Australia seem to be out of touch with their customers and to increasingly offer depersonalised, inflexible services at the same time that bank fees are rising strongly – over the past 10 years fees from households have quadrupled. This evidence does not clinch things since it is possibly consistent with increasing efficiency and offering a wider range of services. But it is also consistent with lack of competition and banks squeezing customers using their monopoly power.

And why are mergers among domestic banks the most ‘natural route to growth and scale’? If the primary economy sought is better access to international capital markets why focus growth locally where customers are offered only restricted banking choices and limited competition?

The suspicion is that the major banks wish to further consolidate their monopoly power in a limited market by decreasing the limited competition and by improving their already substantial opportunities for coordination. The evidence on increasing fees and surging profits is consistent with this view.

Finally, it is not sensible to claim that the banks should be given the 'same opportunities as other Australian companies' when they are quite unlike other Australian companies both in terms of the size and the fact that they obtain banking licences from government. It is entirely appropriate that governments isolate those large businesses that impact on the lives of every Australian and expose them to specific scrutiny and regulatory effort.

Update: Joshua Gans also comments on the Harper article.


Anonymous said...

I think the services offered by Australian banks are excellent and people are just whinging. If fees have quadrupled in 10 years, then that may simply be because they offer more services.

Even at the major banks, if you want a normal account and a VISA with plastic cards (usable anywhere in the world), statements etc. its easy to find for less than $150 per year (and you can collect your VISA points to make it even less). That's tiny. Try comparing that to Coles or a typical supermaket -- these guys probably makes $30-$40 per week off me, and often I have to wait in lines equally as bad as any bank.

Anonymous said...

Conrad, I don't think that's a fair comparison. The number of employee hours per customer at a supermarket is far higher than at a bank.

That said, I'm currently not unhappy with what I get out of the bank.


Anonymous said...

I agree with every word you wrote here, Harry, and I reckon both Kevin Rudd and Ken Henry would too. I was absolutely dismayed both by Harper's article and by very similar (dare I say co-ordinated?) columns by the Fin Review's writers. They can't seem to distinguish between their business contacts' interests and the public interest.

It's enough to make an old Laborite start muttering, Lang style, about "the money power".

Anonymous said...

Whoops, that last one was me.

Matt Canavan said...

What about FIRB guidelines Harry? It is my understanding that foreign banks are also restricted from buying a domestic bank. It seems to me that the number of domestic banks is not really that important but their ability to seek equity investment from global capital markets potentially is.