Why Rob A Bank When You Can Found One?

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Mark Manolopoulos joins with mourners upset by the National Australia Bank’s disappointing annual profit.

So the NAB has just posted its annual profit: a paltry $6.3 billion. How embarrassing.

First of all, despite this staggering sum, note how the Bank – and those who report on it – plays it down. Let’s focus on an article written by the ABC’s Sue Lannin. After she nonchalantly states that profits were up 20 per cent from the previous year, she immediately notes how the Bank’s “preferred measure” is cash earnings, which only increased by 16 per cent to $5.8 billion, which is “worse” than the $6.3 billion “predicted by analysts”. Oh my, how disappointing.

Lannin is not alone in this underplaying. Both The Australian and the Herald Sun wrote about the NAB “missing its target”. What a bummer.

The bad news continues. Lannin writes: “The figure was lower than expected because of provisions made to cover compensation it had to pay for mis-selling payment protection insurance and interest rate products in the UK”. Mis-selling – how hilarious (except for those who “mis-bought” these dodgy products).

The bad news keeps on coming: the Group’s net interest margin (we’re told this is “the difference between the interest rates the bank pays to borrow money compared to the lending rates it charges”) fell four points. How disastrous. (Of course, non-finance types like myself might also wonder why the bank needs to borrow money when it’s making billions.)

(IMAGE: Newtown grafitti, Flickr)
(IMAGE: Newtown grafitti, Flickr)

Lannin goes on to explain how the NAB needs to sell of most of its life insurance business and its Clydesdale and Yorkshire Banks.

Going by this report, it’s all bad news for the Bank. Except that it made $6.3 billion dollars in the past year.

But that doesn’t stop the bank’s chief executive, Andrew Thorburn, from complaining: “The backdrop for 2015 has been a challenging one…. Relatively low economic growth, extensive regulatory changes, fierce competition, traditional risks and some new ones…”. Wow, with such a “backdrop,” “challenging” is too weak a word, Andrew.

And here’s the clincher: Thorburn caps off this list by adding: “and a range of reputational challenges.” Reputational challenges? What?

The article concludes with other bad news for the bank. By the time you finish reading the article, you think it’s all doom-and-gloom.

Except for – that’s right – the $6.3 billion profit.

Talk about downplaying something that at least some of us find gross: that a corporation could make such massive profit – and then complain how things have been “challenging” for it. Poor bank.

But it’s not just how the media frames this mass exploitation in nonchalant and downplayed terms that is so infuriating. Will anyone in the media even question the sheer existence of banks? Which obviously ultimately means: questioning the capitalist system itself.

The world’s greatest – or at least most courageous living philosopher – Slavoj Žižek asks us not to simply accept the existence of banks, but to question the whole logic of the banking system. He recalls the GFC: bankers not only got away with ripping people off on a grand scale but they actually got bailed out, while ordinary bank robbers get thrown in jail for their relatively petty crimes.

Žižek quotes the brilliant East German playwright Bertolt Brecht in this regard: “What is robbing a bank compared with founding a bank?”

While capitalism enables banks to make billions of dollars in profit, the masses struggle. But I guess the NAB and the other banks have experienced “challenging” times, too, so I better not be too harsh on them.

All the best, Mr Thorburn. I hope the bank does better next year.

Mark Manolopoulos

Dr Mark Manolopoulos is a philosopher. He is an Adjunct Research Associate at Monash University.

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