May 15, 2021 Last Updated 6:06 PM, May 14, 2021

The much-anticipated bid for Westpac Pacific (PNG and Fiji) operations by Kina Securities (the owner of Kina Bank) was finally confirmed last month. The offer did not come as a surprise as Westpac moved its Pacific assets into a specialist business division in May 2020, and Kina Securities undertook a capital raising in October. The proposed deal is still pending regulatory and shareholders’ approval.

Currently, only four commercial banks – Bank of South Pacific (BSP), Kina Bank, Westpac and ANZ – operate in PNG with ANZ focused solely on institutional banking. BSP owns more than 50% of the total assets of the commercial sector and has a market share of 63% of loans. If the acquisition goes through, Kina Securities will have nearly all the remaining market share.

Unlike its acquisition of ANZ retail, commercial and SME operations in 2019, Kina Securities says that it intends to maintain Westpac’s commercial banking licence and run the branch network separately. It claims therefore that there will be no lessening of competition. However, this is unconvincing. Despite being run separately, there will be ample opportunity for the two banks, which serve the same shareholders, to collude for strategic purposes. In addition, there is no guarantee that any separation will be permanent.

A further weakening of banking competition in PNG would be a bad thing for several reasons.

There is already a massive spread in PNG between the very high rates at which funds are lent out by the banks and the very low rates depositors receive on their savings – in fact, one of the highest interest rate spreads in East Asia and the Pacific.

Banks are already not incentivised to transmit interest rate adjustments by the central bank (the KFR policy rate) to their consumers as there is little need to compete for loans and deposit base. If banking competition reduces further, banks will possess even more market power to set their own lending and deposit rates, and monetary transmission will be further weakened.

The two remaining bank owners may engage in anti-competitive behaviour by manipulating interbank and other market interest rates to maximise returns. For instance, they may collude to set a common interest rate floor for their lending products and promise not to undercut each other to avoid direct competition. The same applies to deposit rates.

In other countries, banks with high market concentration have been found to fix prices and rig bids in the foreign exchange interbank market to boost profits. PNG is unlikely to be an exemption.

In addition, PNG banks are already some of the unfriendliest in the region. Consumers are often required to pay for basic banking services such as account opening, ATM balance enquiries and cash withdrawals but receive poor service delivery. As banking competition decreases there will be less economic incentive to improve service delivery, and rip-offs like these could get even worse.

Further reducing banking competition will also lead to heightened risk aversion, and less lending to the private sector. There are already signs that PNG banks prefer lending to governments rather than firms. Having private investment crowded out by public investment is detrimental to economic growth and development, and will make it harder for smaller firms especially to access credit.

Financial inclusion is also at risk. Lesser banking competition has been found to reduce the supply of financial products, increase the rates and fees paid, curtail financial innovation and decrease the quality and variety of products offered. 

That said, Kina Bank made a commitment to expand its financial inclusion effort in PNG in 2019 via its investment in MiBank, a microfinance institution. The Asian Development Bank (ADB) is also currently the second largest shareholder of Kina Securities, following its $10 million investment in the company in 2019. They may use what shareholder power they have to encourage decisions that align with their own inclusion goals.

Though these are positive signs, greater profitability and expanded financial inclusion do not always go hand in hand, and economic theory would suggest that healthy competition is more likely to create sustainably lower prices and better access than does relying on the benevolence of banks.

PNG’s financial regulator should take its fair share of the blame for not making the PNG banking sector more entry friendly. A recent study by ADB shows that regulatory barriers and high costs have discouraged the growth of the banking sector. The study pointed out that the increasing compliance with regulations related to consumer registration has led to increasing documentary requirements and high compliance costs. While strong oversight is necessary to guarantee financial stability, financial regulators must tread carefully to avoid their actions leading to financial exclusion.

Of course, if Westpac wants to exit the Pacific, it needs to find a seller. But PNG needs new entrants into its banking sector. The central bank should consider encouraging new entrants from the existing non-bank financial institutions.

A competitive financial system is vital for high and sustained growth. The people of PNG will find themselves worse off if one day they wake up to just two companies serving their retail banking needs.

This article appeared first on Devpolicy Blog (devpolicy.org), from the Development Policy Centre at The Australian National University. Accompanying graphs can be viewed on that page.

Dek Sum is an Associate Lecturer at the Development Policy Centre, based at the University of Papua New Guinea, where he is a Visiting Lecturer and Project Coordinator for the ANU-UPNG partnership.

Westpac says it will not respond to speculation in Australian media this week that it is on the verge of selling its Pacific businesses.

A Westpac Fiji spokesperson says the Bank “is currently undertaking strategic review of its specialist businesses, as we shared with the market in May. This includes wealth platforms, superannuation products, investments, general and life insurance and auto finances well as Westpac Pacific.

“Given this, there is going to be ongoing speculation circulating – as there has been since Westpac sold some Pacific operations in 2015. Westpac does not respond to speculation and, as always, if there is news to share about our business, our people and customers will hear it from us.”

On Monday, The Australian newspaper [paywall]  reported that it had information Westpac was close to selling its Pacific banking operations, and that while the buyer’s identity was unclear, “logical acquirers” would be either the Papua New Guinea-headquartered Bank South Pacific (BSP) or France’s BRED.

Westpac sold its Samoa, Cook Islands, Solomon Islands, Vanuatu and Tonga operations to BSP in 2015. It retains operations in Fiji and PNG.

In May this year, Westpac announced statutory net profit was down 62% (A$1,190 million) for the first half of 2020, compared to the first half of 2019. In a statement to the Australian Stock Exchange it said it was clear that Westpac needed to “simplify and focus on its Australian and New Zealand banking businesses,” and that a Specialist Businesses division under the leadership of Jason Yetton would review Westpac’s Pacific businesses, superannuation, wealth investments, insurance and auto finance.

“Over the coming months we will conduct a detailed strategic review on the best option for these businesses. This will include considering whether they would ultimately be more successful under different ownership” the Bank said in May.

Meanwhile in Fiji, “customers can be assured that we are here to help and continue  our support to people and communities across Fiji, including through our COVID-19 customer assistance package,” the Westpac Fiji spokesperson says.

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