A licence to print money: Bank profits in Australia

by David Richardson

Banks were portrayed as the villains of the global financial crisis; many of the big international banks and their executives were associated with greed and excessive risk-taking. Regulators were obliged to step in with unprecedented rescue packages to save the financial systems in the US, the UK and, to a lesser extent, the major European countries. Australia was also affected but fortunately, the Australian banking system survived relatively unscathed. There is now a view that Australians were protected from the crisis because of the financial strength and profitability of the banks and that profitable banks provide a range of other benefits to the Australian community. However, this paper puts the view that Australian banks are too profitable and that their excess profits are being made at the expense of the Australian community. The paper estimates the underlying profits of the banks to remove the impact of the global financial crisis but, as the crisis passes, actual profits will again reflect underlying profits. The estimates in this paper suggest that the big four banks alone make underlying profits of around $35 billion before tax, of which some $20 billion per annum is likely to reflect the banks’ exploitation of their monopoly over the Australian payments system.

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