ASIC To Replace ASX As Supervisor of Australian Financial Markets

Someone asked me what I thought about the government’s decision to give our official corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC), responsibility for supervising real-time trading on Australian markets, as announced by Treasurer Wayne Swan.

That means that ASIC would be responsible for investigating and uncovering insider trading, market manipulation and other fraudulent practices that occur on financial markets.

This responsibility was previously assigned to the market operator, the Australian Securities Exchange (ASX). Since the ASX demutualised and became a publicly listed company in 1998, it has been argued that there is now a conflict of interest between its duty to supervise the markets and its duty to maximise profits for its shareholders. That was the government’s reasoning for ordering the transfer of powers.

My answer is that I agree that there is a conflict of interest, but I do not believe ASIC is competent enough to carry out its new duty. ASIC is under resourced, inefficient and has a culture of apathy and incompetence. In addition, they lack the ASX’s technological know-how. The government did not mention how much extra funding they were going to allocate, if any.

I want to hear more about plans for extra funding and a cultural purge before I would have any degree of confidence in the new arrangements.

Bank Shares

Earlier today, I was asked whether I thought Australian Bank shares are a good investment in current market conditions.

For the sector as a whole, I expect Capital Gains to be subdued for the next few years as our economy is slowing, interest rates are high and people are borrowing less (or paying back debts). Profit growth will be very small, however I do not expect any cuts in dividends.

For individual banks, the situation is not so clear. ANZ has been in the news due to having increased its provisions for bad debts, as well as the OPES Prime fiasco. NAB has also copped some flack due to exposure to the US mortgage crisis. SGB and WBC have done better, both reporting strong single digit earnings increases.

I am not going to make a call, but I can tell you how I would start my analysis – I would examine each bank to determine the proportion of income from each of the bank’s activities, e.g. Retail banking, business lending, wealth management/financial advice and others. Also, I would look at the proportion of income earned in Australia and the proportion earned overseas. I can then make my own judgement on the future prospects of each activity.

Commonwealth Securities provides research from Aspect Huntley on its website. The above information can be found under the ‘Analysis’ tab.

Be cautious about PEG estimates provided online. These are purely guesses made by the research company’s analysts. It is better to read each bank’s earnings guidance in their annual report and use your own critical thinking skills to see what assumptions lie behind them.

For me, banks are now an income investment, as they pay large, stable, fully-franked dividends. I have been holding ANZ and NAB since last year. Do not consider this a recommendation.

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