The lucky country proves it again

04/03/2009 - 22:00


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Australia has managed to avoid the excesses so prevalent elsewhere.

The lucky country proves it again

WHO remembers that week last September when the sub-prime lending crisis in the US turned into a full-scale global financial crisis?

Or should I ask, who in business could possibly forget that week?

The world's largest insurance company, American Insurance Group (AIG), revealed catastrophic losses and had to be bailed out by the US government.

Investment bank Lehman Bros collapsed and Merrill Lynch, one of the pillars of Wall Street, sold itself to Bank of America.

These were some of the dramatic developments that led to a sudden collapse in confidence in the global financial system.

In recent weeks, we have seen more evidence of just how deep a hole major international financial institutions have dug for themselves.

AIG unveiled a $A95 billion quarterly loss this week -- the largest quarterly loss in US corporate history -- as it secured a third multi-billion dollar US government bailout package, confirming US taxpayers as the largest shareholding group in the company.

Once this would have been called nationalisation and was anathema to Wall Street. Now it's seen as a prudent response to maintain financial system stability.

In terms of audacity and scale, the AIG bailout was rivalled only by last week's US government deal to boost its equity stake in global banking giant Citigroup to as much as 36 per cent, even though the bank has already received billions of dollars from US taxpayers.

More than any other, the case of Merrill Lynch highlights the culture of greed that contributed to these problems. It recently emerged that Merrill brought forward the payment of $A5.5 billion in staff bonuses, ahead of the disclosure of a massive quarterly loss and a taxpayer-backed bailout.

The top four bonus payments were worth a combined $121 million and the next 10 recipients received a combined $128 million. Overall, the top 149 bonus recipients received a combined $858 million.

But the problems are not confined to the US; they are global.

The UK's largest bank, Royal Bank of Scotland, recently distinguished itself by reporting a loss equal to $52 billion, the largest in British history.

UK taxpayers are pumping billions of pounds into the stricken bank, which has also become renowned for awarding its disgraced former chief executive a lifetime pension equal to $2.3 million per year.

Lloyds Banking Group would have stayed in the black but for its 2008 acquisition of BankWest's former parent HBOS, which incurred a loss of $37 billion.

That dragged Lloyds, which is 43 per cent owned by the UK government, to a net loss of $22 billion.

These are some of the extreme cases. Or as Prime Minister Kevin Rudd would say, they are cases of extreme capitalism.

Not all banks are on the red. Even in the US and Europe, there are banking and insurance group in a sound financial position.

By contrast, the entire banking system in Australia is in remarkably good health.

All of the major banks have reported solid profit results this year.

Brisbane-based Suncorp was the laggard, with a slump in earnings, yet it still managed to report a half-year profit of $258 million.

However, the profit slump was enough to cost chief executive John Mulcahy his job. If Mr Mulcahy were a banking executive in the US, he would probably be lauded as a star performer.

Despite the sound state of Australia's banks, they are still getting taxpayer support, via their ability to raise funds by issuing government guaranteed bonds.

The Australian banks have rapidly exploited this opportunity; in fact, they have done so far more than the government anticipated.

Ratings agency Moody's decision this week to put the 'Aa' ratings of three of the big banks on a negative outlook is the nearest we get to really bad news.

This information helps to keep Australia's financial and economic outlook in perspective.

This country is not immune from the global financial crisis and economic slowdown, nor is Western Australia, but we continue to perform far better than most other jurisdictions.


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