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D-Day for Australian banks as bombshell inquiry report set for release



SYDNEY (Reuters) – The Australian government is due to release on Monday the final recommendations of the independent inquiry that exposed systemic wrongdoing in Australia's financial sector last year, probably leading to sweeping changes to the country's banking industry.

FILE PHOTO ̵

1; A combination of photographs showing people using automated counter machines (ATMs) at Australia's "Big Four" banks – Australia and New Zealand Banking Group Ltd (bottom R), Commonwealth Bank of Australia (top R), National Australia Bank Ltd (bottom L) and Westpac Banking Corp (top L). The big banks, insurers, pension funds and regulators who oversee the financial industry are bracing for a brutal summary of their misdeeds and weaknesses, and a list of tough recommendations including possible criminal charges.

The Royal Commission was a non-judicial independent body led by a high court judge that was tasked by the government, reluctantly at first, with investigative financial sector following a string of banking scandals.

For 11 months its public hearings shocked the country and wiped more than $ 60 billion ($ 43.4 billion) from top financial stocks as investors factored in the prospect of tougher regulation, higher compliance costs and thinner margins.

Regulators were also grilled by the commission barristers about why they seemed reluctant to crack down on wrongdoing, sometimes penalizing with little more than a mildly worded press release.

"There will be nothing positive in the recommendations because the banks have clearly breached various bonds in the laws," said Matthew Wilson, a banking analyst at Deutsche Bank.

Among other things, analysts expect the inquiry to recommend enforcement of responsible lending laws, and to certain conflicted commissions paid to financial advisors, and limits to executive bonuses.

In a separate but related ruling on Monday, which included the new regulatory environment, Australia's corporate watchdog ordered by the Commonwealth Bank of Australia to stop taking financial-advice fees to its charging practices.

The Royal Commission's report, due for release around 0520 GMT, comes ahead of an election expected in May which opinion polls suggest the center-left Labor party will win. Labor says it expects to adopt all the commission's recommendations.

Conservative Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who initially dismissed Labor calls for a banking inquiry as a "populist whinge", said he also expects to take up the recommendations.

But he has warned against overreaching and cutting off credit flows, most likely the battle-line for the government as it fights for electoral survival.

DAMAGE DONE

Even before the release of its final report, the inquiry has already pushed top executives out of their jobs and prompted billions of dollars of customer remediation payments.

The hardest-hit company has been financial planner AMP Ltd, which saw its CEO, chairwoman, chief lawyer and three directors leave following evidence, all of them doctored and independent report to a regulator.

AMP shares fell four percent to a record low on Monday and have more than half since the inquiry began in February 2017, the biggest decline among the large institutions. The 170-year-old company, which has been wrongdoing, issued a profit warning on Jan. 25.

The "Big Four" banks – CBA, Westpac Banking Corp., Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, and National Australia Bank – plus AMP have already committed to pay more than $ 2 billion to wronged customers.

Shares in the major banks edged lower in early trade on Monday before reversing to post gains of about one percent at lunchtime, helping the broader market 0.3 percent higher.

"There is growing speculation among traders that … we could actually see more certainty in the sector, despite probably bad news, and that certainty will be enough to bring to bounce this week," said Michael McCarthy, chief market strategist at stockbroker CMC Markets.

(GRAPHIC: Australian bank stock performances – tmsnrt.rs/2SgBQUZ)

Reporting by Byron Kaye; Additional reporting by Paulina Duran, Tom Westbrook in Sydney and Colin Packham in Canberra; Editing by Stephen Coates

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

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