CBA's 'global search' for a CEO ends at home

Matt Comyn takes over at the helm of the troubled Aussie lender. But moving its former retail chief to the top job won't ease scrutiny amid a compliance scandal.
Matt Comyn
Matt Comyn

In August, Australia's Commonwealth Bank launched a global search for its new CEO as it sought to fight back from a compliance scandal.

On Monday, it appointed a 20-year veteran of the bank – who most recently led the retail division at the centre of money laundering claims that helped spark the creation of a royal commission into the activities of Australia's big-four lenders.

The bank announced on Monday that Matt Comyn would take over from Ian Narev as CEO in April. Narev announced he was standing down in August as CBA posted a record A$9.9 billion ($7.8 billion) profit – just days after financial intelligence agency Austrac hit it with legal action for some 53,700 alleged breaches of anti-money-laundering and terrorist financing rules.

The bank now faces questions over how an insider could improve its reputation.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Comyn, Narev and bank chairman Catherine Livingstone found themselves peppered with such questions from analysts and journalists in a post-appointment briefing on Monday.

As Comyn put it, his role will be to "maintain the momentum already under way, upgrading and strengthening our governance, accountability and risk management while continuing to deliver strong financial performance".

Livingstone added: "The importance of maintaining momentum at the moment should not be underestimated in terms of our ability to address the issues, and also providing certainty within the bank as to the way forward."

But the questions don't end with Monday's briefing. The bank is likely to come under imminent pressure from three sources.

First up is the royal commission, announced by Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull in November will examine how banks respond to misconduct scandals and whether they have problems of governance or culture.

CBA said it was sending its initial submission to the inquiry on Monday. A final report is due a year from now.

"Our intention is to be absolutely transparent with the royal commission," Livingstone said. "It is far better that we are aware of the issues and that we have identified the issues and that we are working on addressing the issues, than waiting for others to identify them."

Potentially more costly is the case brought by Austrac, which focuses on so-called intelligent deposit machines, into which users deposit up to A$20,000 – double the threshold above which cash transactions should be reported to regulators.

Austrac accuses CBA of failing to conduct adequate risk assessments before implementing the machines, of filing 53,500 transaction reports late, and failing to report suspicious activities and meeting due diligence requirements.

Each individual claim – they now number 53,800 after Austrac added more late last year – draws a maximum penalty of A$21 million. While CBA admits all but a handful of the breaches, it argues that the actual number of individual breaches should be far lower.

Still, as Austrac CEO Nicole Rose put it: "These allegations are very serious and reflect systemic non-compliance over approximately six years."

The case is due back in court later this year.

Finally, CBA faces an inquiry from the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (Apra). The financial services regulator is due to issue its report by the end of April and has pledged to provide CBA with a set of recommendations for organisation and cultural change.

As Comyn put it in Monday's press conference: "We are participating in a very important review with Apra, and we will take the results of that review very seriously, and look to implement those as swiftly as possible."

¬ Haymarket Media Limited. All rights reserved.