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CBA's profit is too big for political comfort

CBA has produced a profit that is great for shareholders.

But it is a politically inconvenient one, as the bank faces heightened scrutiny over its financial planning division and all the big banks push back against the possibility that the Murray inquiry into the financial system will recommend new curbs on their activities.

The June year result was broadly as expected: a 12 per cent increase in cash earnings to $8.68 billion and a final fully-franked dividend of $2.18 a share that took the annual payout 10 per cent higher to $4.01 a share. Shareholders on the books on August 21 will get the final payout on October 2.

CBA’s profitability is going to make waves, however.

It’s not the size of the profit itself: $8.68 billion is a huge number, but the CBA is also a huge organisation. In a market that again displayed the post-global crisis characteristic of slow credit growth, it boosted average interest earning assets by $52 billion, to a massive $705 billion.


The politically inconvenient number is the return on equity that CBA's cash profit generates, or ROE. It is a measure of profitability, not gross profit, and in the June year it rose by a half a percentage point to 18.7 per cent. 

The CBA has produced better returns on equity in the past. It returned 21.5 per cent in 2005-2006, and 21.7 per cent in 2006-07, ahead of the global crisis for example. Its return on equity fell to 15.8 per cent in 2008-09 as the crisis pushed loan losses higher, but climbed back up to 19.5 per cent in 2010-2011 as the world and the bank climbed away from the crisis.

The broader points however are that CBA’s return on equity is climbing, better than the other three big banks in this market, and better than almost every other bank in the world. 

Those are inconvenient facts as CBA and the banks face up to the possibility that the Murray report will recommend tighter capital controls that would crimp earnings. 

They might also face a recommendation for the separation of core banking activities from more risky ones, including investment banking.

This is something that has happened in key markets overseas, including the biggest banking market of all, the United States.

It’s inconvenient for CBA too as it attempts to show the world that it has reshaped its culture to eliminate the profit-driven behaviour that led to the scandal in its financial planning business.

CBA stuck up a graphic with its results that shows where Australia’s listed banks are placed in the world in terms of profitability.

It uses a lower local ROE benchmark than CBA's own ROE of course. At 18.7 per cent, CBA is well above the big-bank average, which rose to 16.3 percent from 16.0 percent in KPMG's most recent big bank survey, despite extra capital required to prepare for new regulatory requirements.

Even then, however, the Australian banks look pretty good.

Indonesia is on top of the ROE league table, China is second, Russia is third, Canada is fourth, India is fifth and then come Australia’s listed banks.

The Australian banks comfortably beat listed banks in more mainstream banking markets, including Japan, the United States, the United Kingdom, France, Spain, Germany and Italy

Those are of course countries and banking systems that were hit harder by the 2008-2009 global financial crisis.

Banks in Japan, the United States, the UK, France, Spain, Germany and Italy are still producing returns on equity below 10 per cent. Frankly, that’s not healthy. It is a sign that those economies are still troubled.

Still, CBA’s result and its ROE in particular are stellar. The returns it is getting won’t do much to dissuade those who believe that the big Australian banks make too much money and need to be reined in.