A lot happened last week. Taylor Swift announced her Australian tour dates. Prince Harry announced his engagement to Meghan Markle. And in a spectacular show of being skewered by his own political allies, Prime Minister Turnbull announced the Royal Commission into banks.
If you haven’t been following the business press as closely as me, let’s recap the key points.
- Banks have done a bunch of dodgy things, from ripping off financial planning customers, to denying life insurance clients their claims. Labor and The Greens have been gunning for a banking Royal Commission for ages.
- The Government was, for a long time, seen as an ally of the banks. But in a high-drama, high-school-style reversal of friendship, the Libs came up with a new bank tax in this year’s budget. Turnbull, like a mean girl, sensed the direction of the wind, saw that people don’t like banks, and figured he may as well take money off them. All of sudden it was like ‘you can’t hang with us’ and ‘can I have my CDs back’.
- But the Government wouldn’t go so far as calling a Royal Commission, because a) they had said they wouldn’t and b) they still secretly love banks.
- That was, until the crazy Nationals got in on the act last week. Like a group of Emo kids and nerds united by their tendency to get teased, the Libs and Nats have an uneasy coalition. And last week some Nationals threatened to call a parliamentary inquiry, which the Greens had already had a crack at. You know that when the Nats and Greens are pushing the same barrow, some weird shit is about to go down.
- And then, in a crisis response Ferris Bueller would be proud of, the banks sent the PM a letter saying, essentially, ‘Bring it on, bitches’. You see, if the Nats/Greens’ inquiry got up, those parties would control the terms of reference.
- But if the banks and the Libs called their own Royal Commission, they could set the chess pieces up the way they wanted. Choose the guy running it, decide who it would cover and most importantly, what it would exclude.
- Like a kid about to have his locker searched for weed, the banks were all like ‘Nothing to see here’, madly hoping they didn’t accidentally leave a baggie of bud at the back of the locker last week.
So, the terms are set and from what one columnist described, it will have all the impact of being slapped with a wet lettuce. It will also cover more than banks, and sweep in superannuation and insurance. This has the impact of spreading the attention and therefore the depth across more companies. While it’s costing a bomb (like $75m) and will take a year, the word on the street is that’s not actually enough to cover all those sectors. Time will tell.
What does it mean for you?
Probably not a lot. Maybe it will shine a light on the potential conflicts of interest within banks (where they provide financial planning then sell a bunch of their own products, for example).
But we already have a highly regulated bank and financial services sector. What’s harder to control is culture, and that’s what the banks need to work on. When money is involved, and large sums of it, it’s easy for greed to take over in some corners of an organisation.
A good culture calls out bad behaviour and shuts it down. I suspect that hasn’t been happening enough in some parts of some banks. (There are also genuinely good people in banks, doing great work – let’s not forget that).
Caveat Emptor – the real answer to all of this
That just means ‘buyer beware’ – but it sounds way smarter in Latin right? My take on the whole thing is this: there will always be people trying to take your money. So when it comes to big financial decisions, the key is to keep your dubious face on.
Here’s an example. One of the issues that people want the Commission to cover is how ANZ got mixed up in the collapse of Timbercorp. This was a forestry investment that was tax deductible because it was agriculture or something. Basically, if you invested, you got a bunch of tax breaks. So, people chucked a bunch of money into it, and many lost said money when it all collapsed.
I feel sorry for them, but here’s the thing. The people I heard interviewed had broken the basic rules of investment.
Firstly, does it sound too good to be true? Shitload of tax breaks for planting trees? Sounds legit. Not!
Secondly, are you throwing all your money at it? Or are you building a diversified portfolio of investments so that if one goes sour, you don’t lose it all.
Thirdly, have you protected your downside? This means looking at all the things that could go wrong, what they would cost, and how you would bounce back from the worst outcome. If you haven’t played out this scenario, then you’re not ready to invest.
None of these things are super complex or require a degree in finance. It’s just having a good bullshit detector, not ever trusting anyone too much, and following some basic principles.
If you’re ever thinking about an investment and aren’t sure about your own BS filter, ask someone else – someone you trust, or who’s really cynical. Or both. Like a poorly lined pencil skirt, when you hold something up to the light, you often see its flaws.
So, short answer is this: nobody is going to protect your money as well as you. No royal commissioner, no regulator, not even Ferris Bueller. The only option is for you to take charge, Fierce Girls!