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Westpac shareholders call for more heads to roll over money-laundering scandal

Stock MarketsNov 27, 2019 12:55AM ET
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© Reuters. FILE PHOTO: Australia's Westpac Banking Corp's CEO Brian Hartzer speaks during a media conference in Sydney

By Byron Kaye

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Two of Australia's top shareholder proxy advisers on Wednesday urged investors to vote out more directors of Westpac Banking Corp (AX:WBC) after a money-laundering scandal claimed the CEO and chairman of the country's No.2 retail bank.

The campaign suggested efforts by Westpac to curtail outrage over a lawsuit accusing it of enabling 23 million payments in breach of money laundering laws, including between known child exploiters, have fallen short.

The country's oldest bank holds its annual meeting on Dec. 12, and has already said the chairman of its risk and compliance committee, Ewen Crouch, will not seek re-election after the lawsuit from financial crime watchdog AUSTRAC last week.

Proxy adviser CGI Glass Lewis said it would also recommend shareholders vote against director Peter Marriott, a former chief financial officer of Australia and New Zealand Banking Group (AX:ANZ), as he had been on the board since 2013 when the payments at the centre of the scandal began.

"Due to the length of his tenure and his banking background ... his accountability for these matters should be enforced (and) his re-election should not be supported," CGI Glass Lewis said in a note reviewed by Reuters.

Another proxy adviser, Institutional Shareholder Services (ISS), said it recommended voting against Marriott and another Westpac director, Nerida Caesar, on the grounds that Caesar was also on the bank's risk and compliance committee, according to the Australian Financial Review.

Marriott and Caesar were not immediately available to respond to Reuters requests for comment.

U.S.-born Chief Executive Brian Hartzer stepped down on Tuesday and Chairman Lindsay Maxsted said he would retire in early 2020, sooner than planned, only days after he had argued that change at the top would destabilise the bank.

Hartzer's departure effective from Dec. 2 made Westpac the third of Australia's four-biggest banks to lose its top executive in the past 18 months, following a series of scandals and a damaging public inquiry which found systemic industry misconduct.

If owners of more than a quarter of an Australian company's shares vote against its executive pay plans at its AGM, as they did for Westpac in 2018, they can call for the entire board to be removed under Australia's "two strike" law.

CGI Glass Lewis said it would not recommend voting against Westpac's pay plans because the bank had already taken action over the latest allegations.

In the event of a second "strike", CGI Glass Lewis said it would recommend voting against removing the board on the grounds that this was "an option of last resort".

TROUBLE OVER THE TASMAN

Reserve Bank of New Zealand Governor Adrian Orr said he was "very concerned" about the AUSTRAC allegations against Westpac, which has a major presence in New Zealand, as he announced the central bank was ramping up its scrutiny of banks and insurers.

The RBNZ had contacted all banks to ask for assurance they were meeting regulatory requirements, and was working closely with Westpac's New Zealand subsidiary on the issues that had arisen in Australia, Orr told a media conference.

"Our recent reviews of banks and life insurers, and the number of recent breaches in key regulatory requirements, reinforces the need for financial institutions to improve their behaviour," said RBNZ deputy governor Geoff Bascand in a statement accompanying the bank's financial stability report.

Westpac shares closed down 0.2% on Wednesday, taking its total decline to 6.6% or A$6.2 billion ($4.2 billion) in market capitalisation since the money-laundering lawsuit was announced.

The Australian newspaper reported Westpac had lost a bid to supply loans to a government home-deposit assistance scheme due to reputational risk.

Australia's four biggest banks applied for two positions on a panel of lenders for the nationwide home-affordability scheme from Jan. 1, 2020, but Westpac now expected to be excluded, the newspaper reported citing unnamed Westpac sources.

Australia's major retail banks make most of their profit from the home loans.

A Westpac spokesman declined to comment.

Westpac shareholders call for more heads to roll over money-laundering scandal
 

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