Call for banking probe

by Chris Griffith
Published 2 December 1995 in The Courier-Mail


my face


Three coalition backbenchers have urged the Federal Government to hold a Royal Commission or Judicial Inquiry into the banking industry's foreign currency dealings, including the Westpac letters.

This follows the tabling of affidavits by former Senior Westpac and ANZ officers in Federal Parliament.

In a sustained parliamentary attack on the banks, backbenchers Ken Aldred, Ray Braithwaite, and Bob Katter said the affidavits were proof that in the 1980s some banks had exploited farmers and small business people who had been sent to the wall after taking out foreign currency loans.

Westpac last night described their comments as "emotive" and "totally nreasonable". The bank said the tabling of documents using parliamentary privilege was "an unfair strategy".

Banks actively promoted foreign currency loans of around $300,000 to $3m from 1982 to 1986. They attracted a low interest rate compared to Australian currency loans.

Unfortunately some unprotected loans doubled in value when the dollar fell from 1985.

Since then, companies and individuals have taken legal action against the four major banks -- the National Australia Bank, the ANZ, Westpac, and the Commonwealth Bank.

Last year it was estimated there were 302 foreign currency loan cases, 136 of which were against Westpac.

Currently the company Drambo is suing Westpac for $80 million for losses it incurred after it took out a A$13m loan in Swiss Francs, and private litigants are still pursuing their cases -- at issue is whether the banks or the individuals bear responsibility for losses.

But it is only now that the true extent of some foreign currency dealers' willingness to exploit borrowers is being revealed -- by the dealers themselves.

And it seems the most vulnerable and trusting bank customers were exploited the most.

In his statement, one former senior Westpac officer said after the dollar was floated, Westpac adopted a system where "the degree by which an exchange rate was loaded varied and was largely dependent upon a customer being classified as competitive or non-competitive".

The senior manager said: "Non-competitive or captive clients were basically those seen as unsophisticated in foreign exchange practices and customers who would accept an exchange rate and not seek quotes from other Banks."

The manager said Westpac requested him in 1987 to investigate "certain foreign exchange transactions", but was then instructed to cease all investigatory work.

"No explanation was given for this course of action. During these investigations I became concerned over a large number of foreign currency transactions undertaken by staff on behalf of various clients."

He said several of these clients were Brisbane based, and/or foreign currency borrowers.

Another former Westpac manager from the bank's Management Risk Unit, said the bank had deceived customers on foreign currency deals by using "forward rates" when exchanging foreign currency.

He said customers were unaware that the bank was increasing its margins on foreign exchange transactions between $1,000 and $7,000 per $1,000,000 transacted.

"This practice was in existence long before I was engaged by Westpac," he said.

He said bonuses were paid to dealers partly due to the amount of profits they made for the bank's Foreign Exchange Department.

Last night South Australian Senator Grant Chapman tabled a third affidavit, by an ANZ foreign currency dealer. It suggested the ANZ also had loaded foreign currency buying rates quoted to customers.

A spokesman for the ANZ Bank in NSW said the bank could not comment because it was yet to see the affidavit. A national spokesman for the Bank was unavailable last night.

In parliament last week Mr Aldred said much of Westpac's borrowing "may have been using Australian dollars disguised as foreign currency".

He said "sympathetic consideration" should be given to the granting of legal aid for individuals wanting to pursue justice against Westpac.

"Many Australians have lost their homes, many lies have been told, and many jobs and business opportunities have been lost due to Westpac's present new business practices," he said.

A Westpac spokesperson, Ms Glenda Hewitt, said some litigants would not accept they had lost their cases -- as Westpac had to sometimes do.

She said foreign currency loans could not be disguised as Australian dollar loans without the borrowers being charged the higher domestic interest rates.

Mr Braithwaite said it was obvious banks could force former clients into insolvency in legal and court costs before the matter could be properly judged by a court.

"I have no doubt that the law section of Westpac act in isolation from the rest of the bank whose only instruction is, apparently, to ensure that the Westpac letters are put to rest permanently and to ensure the statute of limitations works in the bank's favour, which it currently is doing."

Ms Hewitt said the Banking Inquiry had referred the Westpac letters to the National Crimes Authority which found no impropriety by Westpac.

Another tabled document indicated Westpac was aware of the risks associated with the loans in 1985.

A letter from the bank's Deputy Treasurer. P.J. Clarke, to its Treasurer dated 23 May 1985 said: "My understanding is that many of the borrowers of foreign currencies lack the sophistication to grasp the risks they are exposed to and that equally branch managers who are recommending the loans have little knowledge of the same risks.

This is a fact not a criticism of those involved."

Mr Clarke said the bank's Queensland division had been a heavy promoter of offshore loans.

Yesterday the Foreign Currency Borrowers Association said upwards of 4,000 foreign currency loans had been taken out by small businesses and farmers in Australia and New Zealand.

Association chairman Ian Fisher said about half the disputed loans had led to divorce, and that the financial ruin resulting from foreign currency loans blowing out had led to suicide in the rural community.

He said farmers and small business people had traditionally trusted their banker for correct banking advice just as they had trusted their doctor, lawyer, and mechanic.