Commonwealth Bank Chief Executive Officer Matt Comyn and Deputy CEO David Cohen appeared before the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Economics on Friday, 4 September 2020.
Thank you, Chair, and good afternoon.
Since we last spoke to the Committee almost a year ago a lot has changed.
Australians have faced extreme challenges on numerous fronts: prolonged drought; the most devastating bushfire season in living memory; and now the coronavirus pandemic.
These multiple challenges have put extraordinary pressures on Australians, requiring us to be resourceful and resilient, and to come together as a community.
Early this year, we realised the community would look to our sector for support on a scale we had not seen in decades.
It’s been essential that our customers, both personal and business, have been able to rely upon us when they needed us most.
We’ve been able to respond quickly and flexibly through the collective efforts of government, regulators and the industry with tens of billions of dollars of support to help keep people in work, businesses operating and families and individuals in their homes.
Our people have also been central to our response.
I’ve been extremely proud of how our frontline staff have gone above and beyond to support our customers and communities, even as some worked in difficult circumstances themselves. We kept the majority of our branches open through the pandemic, while we also re-deployed around 500 branch staff to our Financial Assistance Solutions teams to ensure we could respond to customers in the way they preferred to engage.
We received around one million requests for assistance and support. We have offered deferrals on 250,000 loans, relating to over $60 billion in loan balances. At the peak, this included deferrals on 154,000 home loans, 86,000 small and medium business loans, and 21,000 personal loans.
Following the announcement of the Government’s Small and Medium Enterprises Guarantee Scheme, we deployed an improved lending process for new and existing business customers. We began accepting applications the day after the Government had established the scheme. We have now approved $800 million in loans, which accounts for around half the scheme loans funded.
Through this time we also leveraged our digital channels, which managed 10.2 million peak daily logins. Using the app, we sent over 250 million personalised messages to our customers. Some of these messages pointed to an online Financial Support Guide, a regularly updated source of information on CBA services and government assistance. The Guide has had 5.5 million visits, both from our customers and from the wider community.
In our app we also added a Coronavirus Money Plan feature, giving our customers simple and actionable guidance on managing their finances. This feature complements our existing Benefits Finder functionality, a service that helps customers more easily find and access payments they may not have realised they were eligible for. Customers have unlocked benefits worth more than $150 million.
Statistics give a sense of scale, but the stories of the difficulties facing many Australian families are more compelling.
Mal and Sue Rixon are on acreage outside Mogo on the NSW South Coast and operate the local school bus. Fire passed through the Rixon’s property on New Year’s Eve, bringing significant damage. We activated our support package and paused repayments, and with their hardship payment the Rixons were able to take the first steps back to re-establishing their business.
Similarly, a furniture retailer in Devonport in Tasmania had to close its doors during the Covid outbreak, and applied to us for a loan under the Government Guarantee Scheme, to allow for payment of staff and expenses. Upon receiving their loan and advertising their re-opening in April, the business saw sales increase 100 per cent on the previous year, due to increased demand for homewares. They went on to employ 12 staff, up from nine before the pandemic.
Australia’s health and economic outcomes are among the best in the world. This is testament to the efforts of our healthcare workers, Federal and State governments, regulators, businesses and the broader community. We see this as a source of optimism about what more can be achieved.
Nonetheless, considerable challenges remain.
Our central economic forecast aligns with that of the Reserve Bank, which sees the economy contracting by 4 per cent in 2020, and expanding by 2 per cent in 2021, with unemployment reaching 9-10 per cent.
The size of the economic contraction is less severe than we first anticipated, but we face a long and uneven recovery.
As we approach the end of the initial deferral periods, we are working hard to help our customers assess their options. By the end of September we will have made calls to around 250,000 customers, over a two month period. Many of those we contact will be able to recommence their repayments. Some are facing more difficult circumstances.
At Commonwealth Bank we are well prepared to support our customers through a wide range of economic circumstances, and we have around $5 billion of surplus capital. Nonetheless, our resources are finite, which is why we must concentrate our support where it is needed most.
We see the task of finding new employment opportunities as one of the country’s highest priorities. Deferrals and other support measures have played a vital role, but new jobs will be integral to a sustainable recovery; so it is vital our lending supports investment and job creation.
Many Australians are looking for the path back to normality, so they can return to their lives. We will do all we can to help them get there.
In concluding, I want to highlight that from our perspective, this year has been characterised by a high degree of positive cooperation, between industry, governments at all levels, and the community.
This is immensely valuable. We want to preserve this constructive approach, which maximises Australia’s chance of recovering strongly from the challenges we all face.