Four pillars policy
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The policy, originally 'six pillars' (it initially included AMP and National Mutual), was adopted in 1990 by then Labor Treasurer Paul Keating. It covered the big four banks, Commonwealth Bank, Westpac, NAB, ANZ and two insurers, AMP and National Mutual. It was essentially designed to block the merger between ANZ and National Mutual at the time. Keating believed this arrangement would ensure a competitive banking market.
In 1997, leading business figure Stan Wallis produced a report of his inquiry into Australia's financial system (the Wallis report) which recommended that the pillars be dismantled, to leave the banks subject to the same merger competition tests as other businesses. In response, then Coalition Treasurer Peter Costello's removed the pillar status of the two insurers (National Mutual had by that time already been acquired by France's AXA), however the ban on mergers of the remaining four banks was retained, with the rider that none of them were considered immune from foreign takeover. With the change of government, new Treasurer Wayne Swan has stated in 2008 that the Labor government has no plans to dismantle the four pillars policy.
The four pillars policy does not prevent the four major banks from acquiring smaller competitors. For example, in 2000, CBA acquired the Colonial group, which had emerged as a major bank-insurance combine in the 1990s after the Colonial Mutual insurance group, took over State Bank of NSW in 1994. Westpac acquired the Challenge Bank in 1995, the Bank of Melbourne in 1997 and St.George Bank in 2008.
The policy has been criticised for being anti-competitive by ensuring that the four major banks are immune from takeover by the most likely suitors. At the same time, insulating these banks from competition has been argued gave these banks and the Australian banking system strength to withstand the Global financial crisis of 2008. The major banks have criticised the policy on the basis that limiting the size of Australian banks makes them less internationally competitive.
- Press Release: RELEASE OF THE REPORT OF THE FINANCIAL SYSTEM INQUIRY AND INITIAL GOVERNMENT RESPONSE ON MERGERS POLICY
- Four pillars back on agenda, The Age, May 14, 2008
- Westpac-St George merger won't topple four-pillars, The Age, May 15, 2008
- The Australian, 4 March 2009: Four Pillars policy our shield against crisis
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