Asset sale helps as major bank wrestles with RBNZ criticism

Westpac reports a mixed bag of results but describes its overall performance in the first half of the year as "solid".

A major asset sale has helped Westpac NZ arrest a declining profit rate and send its headline figure higher.

Trimmed operating expenses and more automation have also helped with the bank's numbers.

Meanwhile, Westpac is still hard at work dealing with stiff criticism delivered by the Reserve Bank (RBNZ) last year.

On the question of profit figures, the sale of the insurance business Westpac Life to Fidelity Life Assurance helped a lot.

Without it, and other factors, Westpac would have seen its interim statutory profit slip by 5% compared with a year earlier, to end at $497 million.

Instead, it was able to boast a cash profit of $635 million, up 9%.

This was described as a solid result from a resilient bank, by the Westpac NZ chief executive, Catherine McGrath.

These figures govern the six months to March 31, when Westpac NZ was busy fixing problems identified in the criticism from the RBNZ.

That criticism found there was not enough expertise in the bank's board of directors, and there were technical failures along with an insufficient monitoring of risk.

Westpac responded earlier to these comments with changes to its board, along with other measures.

Westpac has now discussed the matter further, in a statement to the Stock Exchange that accompanied its latest financial result.

The statement said Westpac was working to address a Risk Governance Review that was completed last November by the consultancy firm, Oliver Wyman.

The company said it had a programme of work underway to address the issues raised, which was being overseen by its board and by Oliver Wyman itself.

A second problem, relating to liquidity risk management, is being considered in a report by Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu, which is due to be delivered to the RBNZ this month.

These problems led the RBNZ to require last year that Westpac NZ discount the value of its liquid assets by approximately 14%.
And in the interim, Westpac remained under scrutiny.

“This overlay will apply until the RBNZ is satisfied that the RBNZ’s concerns regarding liquidity risk controls have been resolved, and sufficient progress has been made to address risk culture issues,” the statement to the exchange read.

The directors also said the bank was addressing the technology problems raised earlier, and had asked Deloitte to take a look at its progress.

“While work has been underway to address these areas for some time, more work is required to meet Westpac NZ’s expectations and those of the regulator,” the statement said.

In another move, Westpac pledged to increase its opening hours at more than half of its branches. This would mean its network of branches would collectively open for an extra 300 hours per week.

The bank said it wanted to give people “more time to pop in and see our team.

“We want our customers to know our bankers are here to offer help and solutions,” McGrath said.

This move has come after a sustained period of closures or partial closures of branches by many banks. That development has often been controversial with some customers.

Westpac's policy appears to be a partial reversal of that trend.

But even in the six months under review, two branches in New Zealand were “consolidated”, according to Westpac's statement to the exchange. In addition, 18 ATMs were shut down.

In another aspect of its report, Westpac said it had offered $802 million dollars of loans to companies which would pay a lower rate of interest if they hit sustainability targets such as producing lower carbon emissions.

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