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From toothless tiger to jungle king: Wayne Byres' rise to banking regulator

When Wayne Byres starts as chairman of the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority next month, he will take control of a body supervising companies holding more than $4.5 trillion in assets.

Its responsibilities are huge, spanning bank deposits, loans, insurance, and retirement savings.

It's a stark contrast to when Byres began his career at the Reserve Bank's Martin Place headquarters in Sydney in 1984, a time when the central bank was responsible for monitoring banks.

A former colleague from this time says bank supervision was ''definitely not the sexy part'' of the RBA, which was close to a ''toothless tiger'' in dealing with banks.

''It's fair to say it was a fairly new thing, bank supervision,'' the former colleague says.

Although bank supervision may not have been glamorous in the 1980s, Byres now finds himself at the centre of some of the biggest policy debates in global finance.


As secretary-general of the Swiss-based Basel Committee on Banking Supervision since late 2011, he has been overseeing global rules to make banks safer after the global financial crisis.

This has meant navigating significant opposition from the industry and competing demands from member countries.

Those who know Byres say his ability to weigh up such demands, honed over 30 years in financial regulation, will equip him for handling the challenges waiting for him in Australia, where he will replace retiring chairman John Laker.

Inaugural APRA chairman Jeffrey Carmichael worked with Byres at the RBA and then APRA after it was spun out of the central bank in 1998. He highlights Byres' balanced approach and says the new chairman is ''incredibly highly respected'' after his stint in Basel.

''He's very steady, he doesn't make rash decisions, has a terrific intellect and has an ability to weigh the issues, I think, in a way a top regulator always should,'' he says.

''It's not necessarily, 'these are the rules and you've got to stick with them', it's a balance between if something makes good sense and the rule needs adjustment, he'll think about that.''

Byres joined the RBA after studying economics at university, attracted in part by the RBA's generous study support arrangements. Carmichael and other former colleagues say his potential was clear early on.

''Even when I was back at the Reserve Bank, Wayne was one of the high-flyers, someone who had been picked out for acceleration through the ranks, and he really continued that right through his APRA days,'' he says.

Byres takes on the job at a time when bank regulation is under the microscope. The biggest financial system inquiry in almost 20 years is weighing the need for financial stability with competition, efficiency and innovation.

Banks argue that APRA's conservative approach risks doing economic damage, and some quietly hope they will get more of a sympathetic hearing from Byres than they did from Laker.

But Carmichael says Byres will ''certainly expect as high a standard of the banks as John did''.

He says Australia has some of the world's highest expectations of its banking standards, ''and that's not going to change under Wayne''.

Bank executives who have dealt with Byres say he takes a pragmatic approach and is understanding of banks' commercial pressures where possible.

A former NAB executive who dealt with the regulator between 2000 and 2006 describes Byres' approach as ''humble but firm''.

''I found him to be extremely bright - quite intellectual,'' the executive said. ''But he never gave the impression that he was talking down to you.''

Even when Byres had different views to those of the banks, he was open to constructive argument, the executive says.

''He's not afraid to meet with people and debate the issues.''

With banking rules still adjusting to the post-GFC world, such openness to debate may serve Byres well.