BNZ CEO Andrew Thorburn defends bank profitability, says BNZ's return on assets would be 'unsustainably low' in other industries

BNZ CEO Andrew Thorburn defends bank profitability, says BNZ's return on assets would be 'unsustainably low' in other industries
Andrew Thorburn

By Gareth Vaughan

BNZ CEO Andrew Thorburn says New Zealand is lucky to have four banks with double A credit ratings, in the big four Australian owned banks, suggesting if the ratings were cut customers' borrowing costs would rise significantly.

In a speech to the Trans-Tasman Business Circle in Auckland on Friday, Thorburn noted very few banking groups in the world these days "enjoy" double A credit ratings and there are four with such ratings in New Zealand in BNZ, ANZ, ASB and Westpac.

"So globally we are in a very fortunate position indeed," Thorburn said.

Asking what might happen if this wasn't the case, Thorburn suggested as a rough guide, if the credit rating agencies cut the banks to single A ratings, two things would happen.

"Firstly, the cost of our longer term offshore debt would increase substantially. Depending on the circumstances, this movement could add 50‐100 basis points onto the cost of term wholesale funding from offshore, which in the end would be borne by consumer and businesses. Second, our access to offshore wholesale markets would be far more difficult, with fewer investors willing and able to buy our debt," said Thorburn.

"Combined, both of these impacts would almost certainly result in a higher cost to New Zealand customers as we were forced to pass on costs, and as we were forced to rely more upon domestic deposits, for which we would probably have to pay more. Our ability to lend would also most likely be affected, constrained and beholden to offshore investors which potentially means lower credit growth, and less economic activity overall."

Both Standard & Poor's and Fitch have the big four banks at AA- and Moody's has them at Aa3. See credit ratings explained here.

Bank returns on equity 'nowhere near the top of the table'

Thorburn's comments were part of a defence of bank profitability after three of the big four banks, BNZ was the exception, posted record annual net profit after tax this year and a combined 12% rise to NZ$3.2 billion at a time when their Australian parent groups posted a 5% fall.

He said bank lobby group the New Zealand Bankers' Association had commissioned research on the profitability theme.

"It tells us that while New Zealand’s banks have performed well in terms of average return on equity (RoE) over the past five years, their returns are nowhere near the top of the table," Thorburn said. "In fact, they are clustered across the middle of a group of 47 NZX‐listed companies."

"BNZ comes in at 17th place at 14.3%, one place behind TSB on 14.5%. The top performing bank is ASB, in 14th place, with an ROE of 16.3%. What about other big companies? Telecom sits at third place, at 26.8%, Freightways is eighth at 22.5%, and Sanford is in 36th place at 6%. Top of the heap, with a five‐yearly average ROE of 31.7%, is Restaurant Brands, with Hallenstein Glasson Holdings the runner‐up on 28.5%," Thorburn said.

Compared with their Australian parent groups, however, the big four New Zealand banks' average combined RoE for their last financial year came in 320 basis points higher at 18.9%.And earlier this year research from the Bank for International Settlements showed the Australian parents of New Zealand's big four to be the developed world's most profitable as measured by pre-tax profit as a percentage of total assets. Analysis by interest.co.nz showed the New Zealand subsidiaries were more profitable than their Aussie parents with the average pre-tax profit as a percentage of total assets across New Zealand's big four 20 basis points higher at 1.39%.

'Unsustainably low'

However, Thorburn said a large proportion of BNZ's 21% rise in annual cash earnings to NZ$741 million stemmed from lower bad and doubtful debts. And he said as a return on assets, BNZ's cash earnings equate to a return of about 1.2%, a level that would be "unsustainably low" in many industries.

 Although the bank wasn't paying a dividend to its parent National Australia Bank, NAB bought NZ$400 million worth of BNZ shares in May to bolster BNZ's capital position ahead of next year's introduction of the Basel III capital adequacy standards, it would again in future years.

"Historically, we have paid on average 65% of our earnings to our shareholder."

Thorburn went on to say that because BNZ is profitable it's able to make an "enormous" contribution to the New Zealand economy and society.

"We employ 5000 people, as a major player in a New Zealand industry sector that employs over 25,000 people."

"Our annual wage bill is approximately NZ$400 million. BNZ also pays over NZ$200 million in tax annually, and we spend close to NZ$300 million annually with local suppliers. And of course through our lending and other activity we play an enormous role facilitating local businesses, large and small, from Kaitaia to Bluff, from Raglan to Kaikoura, so that they can employ New Zealanders, pay tax, and grow. That sounds like a virtuous wheel to me, and I am proud of how successfully BNZ is keeping it turning right now,' Thorburn said.

In his speech Thorburn also questioned the "fundamental anomalies" of a tax system that favours residential property and said leadership was need to resolve the housing affordability crisis. See more here.

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oh....... a 1.2% return on assets.....  so sad.....
spin this around.....   name any other business that able to be SO leveraged that a 1.2% return on assets is even possible..??????
Shareholder equity is $4.6 billion.....   liabilities are $67 billion.
$741 million profit on equity is a 16% return on equity...  
The ONLY reason the bnz can safely be SO leveraged is because there is a Reserve Bank ...back there... just waiting to provide any liquidity that is needed at any time...
The BNZ could not survive without  Govt. support, that is the Reserve bank ,......Without that support the BNZ ...and every other bank would struggle to survive.....( any economic downturn would be life threatening to banks... without the reserve bank )
The irony is that this guy has got it the wrong way round....  It is not the BNZ that is contributing to society...but it issociety contributing to the BNZ...
I feel cynical...   :)
 
 

@Roelof - cynicism be damned - you are right.
 
What's more does Thorburn think the BNZ's contribution to NZ society comes from his own generosity?:
 
"Our annual wage bill is approximately NZ$400 million. BNZ also pays over NZ$200 million in tax annually, and we spend close to NZ$300 million annually with local suppliers. And of course through our lending and other activity we play an enormous role facilitating local businesses, large and small, from Kaitaia to Bluff, from Raglan to Kaikoura, so that they can employ New Zealanders, pay tax, and grow. That sounds like a virtuous wheel to me, and I am proud of how successfully BNZ is keeping it turning right now,' Thorburn said.
 
This man needs to get a life - all that he pretends to offer comes from  NZer's pockets - it's a closed system - wealth transfer writ large.
 
And the systemic risk is monstrous while these cowboys and their handler, the RBNZ,  depend on a massive percentage of short term borrowings to achieve maturity transformation, thus hoping and praying that the depositors won't rush out the door to grab hard assets and leave them broke.  

Stephen ..just followed ur link.
What do u make of the fact that in 2010 less than $3 billion of bank funding was overnight and now it is $90 billion overnight..???
Why is that ..and what does it mean..??  ( there must be a typing error in the 2010 data )
Anyway... easy to be that the vast majority of funding is less than 6mths..
Keen to hear your view..
Cheers  Roelof

Roelof - it's an error and I am tracking down the RBNZ person responsible to correct it. - My view is that fundingf needs to see a genuine maturity extension, not a fudge of retail deposits falling under the description of sticky and hence stable - at the first sign of trouble they will be gone. CFR as it is designated is unworkable if we wish to stabilise systemic risk. And it remains that the introduction of OBR is a farce predicated upon destroying retail depositors with few other investment options or avenues.

got it...
yeah..I agree... It was a bit of a shock... CFR has done nothing to lengthen maturities..
I had presumed that the intention was to lengthen maturities..!!!   silly me..
90 billion is overnight funding,,..???    Is that funding..demand deposits ??  or something else
 
Many thks  Roelof

Yep without the RBNZ liquidity backstop (and a govt guarantee if things get really bad) the banks business model is unsustainable. You are right, they can only maintain their leverage with this support. We are all indeed supporting the banks not the other way around. What other private corporation has this level of taxpayer support. The sooner they are restructured and reregulated to remove their armeggedon threat they trot out, the better.

Thorburn makes some good points. We have a very safe banking system in NZ and competition is alive and well. If you have the time and energy to shop around you can find plenty of very good deals and actually pay minimal fees for good banking services.
Bank profits, whilst large in $$ terms do not have outrageous return on equity. Plenty of other companies have higher ROE's. 
Having a safe banking system is key and I'd rather the banks made good profits and paid lots of tax. They are seriously big employers in NZ and feed a huge number of suppliers (stationary suppliers, cleaners, security companies etc etc etc).
The banks need us and we need the banks!
 

If they're too big to fail, they're too big to live. Break them up and wind back the leverage before its too late. All competition is in the banking sector is a race to the bottom in lending standards.

 big employers in NZ and feed a huge number of suppliers (stationary suppliers, cleaners, security companies etc etc etc).
If the profits were left in N.Z how many more could be Fed and employed?
"Having a strong banking system" is propaganda put out by banksters to perpetuate the cause, cover their sin's and continue the rort.
The Banking system has got to a stage where it is in dire need of overhaul.

Have you seen this guys salary .  His salary has grown by two thirds to NZ3.9Million.  Another unacceptable pay packet .  Another case of greed when the person does not need the cash.  When he dies the money goes to someone else and when they marry etc it goes to someone else. All the money you earn eventually goes to someone else, so there is no point having too much since it goes to someone else.  Share the money around a bit more to the bottom paid people.  Aussie banks have probably peaked on earnings that why they are trying persude governors for lower interest rates in Australia and NZ to restart the housing boom.  In NZ cuts are going to be difficult going forward.