CANBERRA, AAP – The heads of Australia’s two largest banks are more than happy to talk about how they are assisting customers who may still be suffering hardship after last year’s recession.
But when it comes to whether they have any interest extending their operations, they are far less forthcoming.
Reports last month suggested Suncorp is looking to hive off its regional bank business to focus on general insurance.
Commonwealth Bank CEO Matt Comyn was asked during a parliamentary hearing whether he would be looking to acquire it.
“We are not going to comment on current or future M&A activity,” Mr Comyn told the House of Representatives economic committee in Canberra.
“But what I would add is Suncorp is a meaningful contributor, so we would expect any move to acquire by a major bank would be reviewed very carefully by the ACCC (competition watchdog).”
Westpac CEO Peter King later told the hearing he had seen the speculation surrounding Suncorp in the media.
“I’m not aware that is actually going to happen,” Mr King said.
“But it wouldn’t surprise you any future M&A activity, I really can”t make any comments on what we may or may not do in the future when we haven’t even thought about it.”
Meanwhile, Mr Comyn said almost all of the customers who deferred their home loans during last year’s recession have restarted repayments.
Of the 158,000 customers who took up the support program, only 3000 to 4000 still need assistance with their mortgage repayments.
“This is a remarkable outcome,” Mr Comyn told the hearing on Thursday.
“We are conscious that some of our customers still face difficulties … We are focused on delivering targeted assistance to customers, whether that be so they can stay in the family home or because they are experiencing vulnerabilities.”
Mr King said of the 148,000 mortgage deferrals among Westpac customers, around 4500 have moved on to “hardship” packages.
“Help has not stopped,” Mr King said.
He said the bank has moved from what he described as general help, where every customer is offered the same assistance, to tailored help.
Mr Comyn said his bank is closely watching developments in Australia’s buoyant housing market.
But unlike previous house price upturns, some of the largest gains have been outside the major cities and in areas that had seen subdued prices pressures or even fall in preceding years, he added.
There was also a greater share of demand coming from first home buyers and owner-occupiers.
“These factors are positive, not the least because it means more Australians are buying their first home but also because they point to greater stability in the market,” Mr Comyn said.
He said robust house prices had also prompted some customers to voluntarily make the decision to sell their properties if they had difficulty making repayments.
CBA expects house prices to grow this year and next, but not at the rate seen in the early months of 2021, which was “quite a rapid uptick”.
Mr King said he would like to see increased housing supply to assist first home buyers into the market.
“Maybe we could have people spread around the country a bit more,” he said.
“So more in the regions and that would need good transport infrastructure … and better communications.”
The parliamentary hearing is part of a routine examination of the big four banks by federal MPs.
The heads of National Australia Bank and ANZ will be in the spotlight on Friday.