June 25, 2018 / 4:14 AM / a year ago

Australia's ANZ says it should have communicated better with farm customers

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (ANZ.AX) said it failed to talk thousands of farm borrowers through a takeover of their former lender, adding some customers may have left if they knew it planned to hike fees immediately after the acquisition.

FILE PHOTO: The logo of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (ANZ) is pictured on a local branch in Sydney in this April 30, 2014 file photo. REUTERS/David Gray/File Photo

The admission from Australia’s third-largest lender on Monday came as a powerful public inquiry into finance sector misconduct turned its attention to the country’s $50 billion agriculture industry.

ANZ has previously apologized for its treatment of some of the 7,000 customers it inherited in a troubled 2010 takeover of the former wheat board’s financial services arm, Landmark Financial Services, amid media and parliamentary scrutiny.

But acknowledging it fell short of community expectations at the so-called Royal Commission adds to widespread expectations that the inquiry will recommend more regulation of rural lending, including a compulsory national farm debt mediation scheme.

“We should have done a better job of the way we communicated that to Landmark customers,” ANZ’s head of corporate and commercial lending, Benjamin Steinberg, told the inquiry, referring to the fact that the bank was taking them on as customers.

“A lot of these Landmark customers have never dealt with a large financial institution before, like ANZ. Some of the customers felt that had they been advised earlier they may have made a decision to refinance their finances from Landmark before the acquisition occurred.”

In a letter ANZ sent to Landmark customers soon after the deal, read out at the inquiry, ANZ said it had the right to change fees, charges and interest rates, and to cut its notice period to 30 days from 60 days if it wanted to change contract terms. The bank also told customers they were required to open an ANZ account.

Asked about another ANZ internal document, read out at the inquiry, suggesting it planned to boost revenue by A$6 million by hiking fees to Landmark customers, Steinberg said “the view at the time was that the Landmark book at the time was relatively underpriced (and) there was an opportunity to have a revenue uplift through repricing”.

Steinberg said he agreed, in part, with the suggestion that ANZ’s rationale for buying Landmark was to enable the bank to cross-sell its products to a new network of customers.

Earlier on Monday the Australian Securities and Investments Commission’s head of assessment and intelligence, Warren Day, told the inquiry the regulator may need to take a more hands-on role in farm finance as some rural lenders, such as the non-bank ones, are not covered by existing complaints-handling systems.

ANZ shares closed down 1 percent on Monday, in line with the other big banks but more than the broader market which fell just 0.25 percent. The four biggest banks and biggest wealth manager have lost a combined A$33 billion ($24.53 billion) in market capitalization since hearings began in February.

Reporting by Byron Kaye and Paulina Duran; Editing by Himani Sarkar and Muralikumar Anantharaman

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