Another key difference is the issue of shadow banking. Some feel this is a maligned segment and should be known as 'market-based financing' but while it is a legitimate market it is also less transparent. America’s sub-prime mortgage debacle was fuelled by the fact so much lending was being traded, in complex forms, in markets and was not held on the balance sheets of banks.
Australia does not have this issue.
But Lex and others are right to question whether this is as good as it gets for the banking sector and from where will growth come?
Commonwealth Bank looks a true blue-chip: its return on equity is 18.7 per cent, earnings per share growth is around 12 per cent, its capital as measured by the more stringent rules of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority is 9.3 per cent and on the measures accepted internationally 12.5 per cent.
Its well publicised financial advice problems aside, it is a very well managed company with a strong record of shareholder value creation.
But two things continue to characterise Australian banking: the strength in the retail and particular mortgage markets. And the continuing positive credit cycle.
There is little evidence the credit cycle is turning or will turn in the foreseeable future. Commonwealth Bank’s credit quality remained excellent, with just some particular problems rather than systemic ones. Its impairment charge was down 12 per cent on a year earlier.
ANZ’s chief financial officer Shayne Elliott told BlueNotes he could see nothing to spook the horses and write backs on debt previously written off continue to emerge, bringing the charge to profits down further. National Australia Bank’s update on Monday confirmed these trends.
But the challenge is revenue.
The two Sydney banks, Commonwealth and Westpac, have certainly benefited from being overweight houses compared with the more business skewed Melbourne banks in recent years.
In the Commonwealth result, retail banking was up 12 per cent but business banking just 4 per cent.
A rebound in business banking has been a long time coming yet it must certainly emerge if revenue is going to grow across the sector. For business oriented banks too proportionally more income is sourced from markets activity. Not betting the bank’s own book but undertaking activities like currency and interest rate hedging – which are far less in demand with low interest rates and little volatility.
ANZ’s Mike Smith was optimistic at the trading update about improving business conditions. So too NAB with its update.
Indeed, a range of economic data supports the view.
In the wake of the spike in unemployment, more buoyant readings from NAB’s Business Confidence and Business Conditions surveys supported Smith’s view business was ready to invest.
The July NAB Business Conditions number rose to +8 from June’s +2. Business Confidence rose to +11 from +8. Confidence rose to its highest level since September 2013, whilst the Conditions gauge rose to its best level since early 2010. NAB noted much of the improvement in Conditions came from three sectors: construction, manufacturing and wholesaling. Mining and retail were the weakest sectors.
Of particular note was the capacity utilisation data in the survey. This too supports the view business is starting to invest in capital intensive stock which will require funding at some point. The survey numbers were also supported by improving corporate sales and profitability.
Whether that translates to more employment – which is what everyone is obviously hoping and would suggest the unemployment numbers were a bit aberrant – is yet to be seen.
But if bank stocks in Australia are going to continue to defy the analysis from the northern hemisphere, it is not so much debt that is the worry but the lack of revenue. That is going to hinge on whether this time the improvement in business sentiment does translate. Over the past few years there have been no shortage of spikes to puncture the animal spirits of corporate Australia. The trouble is, whether politically or geopolitically, there’re still plenty of spikes on the road ahead.