Wayne Byres, Chairman - House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics, Canberra
Thank you for the opportunity to appear today. This is a hearing into APRA’s 2015 Annual Report, which I hope provides a clear and transparent account of our activities. But since many issues discussed in that Report continue to have currency, and the Committee will also want to discuss more contemporary issues, I plan to use my opening remarks to provide an update on a few key areas of APRA’s work since that report was published. More detail will, of course, be provided in our 2016 Annual Report, which will be tabled shortly.
APRA’s regulatory agenda in 2016 has been heavily influenced by the recommendations of the Financial System Inquiry (FSI). In particular, we continue to improve the resilience of the banking system to adversity, building on the lessons learned from the financial crisis. In our bailiwick, this has included measures to strengthen bank capital, bolster the stability of bank funding, and facilitate a simpler and more resilient securitisation market.
All of these initiatives are designed to improve the resilience of banking institutions. But even with more resilience, preparing for a possible crisis involving one or more regulated institutions with serious threats to their immediate viability is also a wise investment. We therefore welcomed the Treasurer’s recent commitment to pursue proposed legislative improvements to the statutory toolkit for crisis management, as recommended by the FSI, as a matter of priority. We would also appreciate this Committee’s support when these proposals come before the Parliament.
Housing lending standards
Our supervisory work on housing lending standards has remained a high priority in 2016. There is no shortage of competition for the business of home loan borrowers, but we are keen to see the industry’s competitive instincts directed towards pricing, product features and customer service, rather than pursuing market share by reducing the quality of loans written. Therefore, the goal of our recent work has been to reinforce – and in some areas improve - sound lending standards for housing, particularly in relation to the manner in which lenders assess the capacity of borrowers to service their loans. In response to our attention, we believe the industry has appreciably improved its lending standards: for example, all material lenders are now assessing borrower serviceability using interest rate buffers of at least 2 per cent, and a minimum rate of at least 7 per cent, and some of the overly generous assumptions in affordability models have been tightened up. We continue to monitor the evolving risks in the property market, and are working to have improved standards firmly embedded into industry practice, so they are not eroded away over time.
For the past couple of years, we have given greater attention to the risk culture within regulated institutions. Risk culture is, in simple terms, the way in which the organisation’s culture shapes its attitude to risk-taking and risk management. Assessing risk culture is no easy task. But if an organisation has a poor attitude to risk-taking and risk management, it can ultimately threaten an institution’s financial viability. We saw examples of poor risk culture at the heart of many failures that occurred internationally during the GFC; before that, the demise of HIH Insurance was an example closer to home.
It is important to note that prudential and conduct regulators – that is, APRA and ASIC – both have a legitimate interest in the culture within financial institutions, but that our respective interests stem from different underlying objectives. ASIC's focus on culture is from the perspective of ensuring fair outcomes for customers and investors. APRA’s focus on risk culture reflects our prudential mandate - that as a result of undesirable behaviours and attitudes towards risk-taking and risk management, the viability of an APRA-regulated institution itself - and in severe cases, financial stability – might be threatened. While we start with different objectives, our shared interest means APRA and ASIC need to work collaboratively on culture-related matters - and we are doing that.
APRA’s work over the past year or so has focussed on how Boards assess the risk culture within their organisation, given the introduction of specific prudential requirements in this area from January 2015. We will very shortly publish an information paper on industry activity in relation to understanding and assessing risk culture. In the year ahead, we will continue to refine our approach and methodologies for making assessments of risk culture within regulated institutions, and be looking more closely at the influence of remuneration arrangements on that culture.
Life insurance claims review
As the Committee knows well, there have been serious allegations of inappropriate and unfair treatment of a number of claimants by The Colonial Mutual Life Assurance Society Limited, trading as CommInsure. While ASIC is dealing with specific customer cases, APRA takes a close interest in such matters, given they can provide important insights into the strength of an institution’s governance, risk management and risk culture. Therefore, working alongside ASIC, we commenced three streams of work:
- We engaged with the Board and senior management of CommInsure to gain assurance over the robustness and completeness of the independent reviews commissioned to investigate the allegations, and to ensure a focus on stakeholder and community expectations through this process.
- We met with the whistleblower that brought the CommInsure matters to public attention, and are considering whether the whistleblowing provisions in the Life Insurance Act 1995, which are designed to prevent the identification and victimisation of whistleblowers, have been adhered to in this matter.
- We wrote to the Boards of all active life insurers to seek information about the effectiveness of their governance and oversight mechanisms for matters such as claims handling, benefit definitions, rejected claims and customer complaints. We similarly wrote to a selection of superannuation trustees, as some of the claimants that had experienced unacceptable outcomes were members of group risk schemes via their superannuation funds. Summaries of the key themes from APRA’s analysis of responses to these information requests were released earlier this week.
Our work in each of these streams is ongoing.
Underlying all of the work I have just spoken about is our firm conviction that a strong, stable and competitive financial sector is essential for the ongoing prosperity of the Australian community. Importantly, we do not see enhanced safety as necessarily requiring a trade-off with competition. Rather, the two are complementary since only sound financial institutions will be able to support their customers – both existing and new – through good times and bad. Australia needs regulated institutions that make an adequate return for their owners such that they remain attractive to new investment, while at the same time providing products and services to their customers that offer value for money and perform consistently with expectations. Business models and products that only support the community when times are good do not provide the lasting benefits of competition. Put simply, only sound institutions operating with the interests of their full range of stakeholders in mind, and with a long term perspective, are able to provide real and sustainable service to the community. Through our activities, we hope we are helping to shape the financial system in that direction.
With those remarks, my colleagues and I are happy to answer the Committee’s questions.