Banking inquiry shows how capitalism sucks

Not even the dead are safe from the predatory practices of big capital.

Scarcely a month into a year-long (now possibly longer, given the scale of the crimes being uncovered) banking royal commission, we have a steady stream of revelations about bribery, deception and conning customers.

AMP executives lied to the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC, the corporate regulator) to hide the company practice of charging fees for services it doesn’t provide. 

And Commonwealth Bank financial planners have been charging deceased clients – in one case for more than a decade – for financial advice. Are corpses capable of diversifying away from pushing up daisies? In the world of high finance perhaps anything is possible, but as it turns out this was another “fee for no service” fraud, an utterly detestable one.

Readers of the Guardian flooded the news site with their own stories of being conned or given horrible advice by financial planners. “Several readers … were given ever-increasing credit limits despite being unemployed and … the banks did not check their ability to repay the debt”, wrote columnist Ben Doherty. 

“One was made redundant, but the bank kept increasing the credit limit – from $6,000 to $40,000 – on an interest rate above 20 percent.”

“The bank hounded me with phone calls and the threat of debt collectors. I eventually gave up and declared bankruptcy”, said one reader. “The bank has lost nothing through their predatory lending, and I have been left with exactly that.”

One particular con stands out. It was well-known in financial and political circles prior to the royal commission’s hearings: financial planners charging for advice when selling customers products on which the advisor makes a commission and for which the company charges fees.

This practice was the subject of an extensive ASIC investigation, which found, after reviewing the files of financial planners from a range of institutions, that in 75 percent of cases, the customer’s best interests had not been served by the advice given.

Funny, that.

Now that the open secrets are out, Liberal Party figures, who fought for more than 18 months to prevent a public investigation into the banks, are performing a rear-guard pantomime to convince the world that they are so terribly shocked. 

“This royal commission is casting a spotlight on a lot of banking practices that frankly are contemptible, absolutely contemptible, unethical, probably illegal and just wrong”, backbencher Tony Abbott said on radio 2GB in Sydney.

This from a man, and a party, that wants to gut awards, cut penalty rates, smash unions and grant tens of billions of dollars to large companies through corporate tax cuts. Pull the other one.

And financial services minister Kelly O’Dwyer was a lawyer for big business at Freehills and then an executive at the National Australia Bank. Does anyone believe her when she says, “We care about consumers”? Maybe – if the consumer is Count Dracula. 

The politicians run a giant protection racket for the big end of town and the banks, which are deemed “too big to fail” and have their operations backstopped by government guarantees to international financiers. 

That gives them a flow of cheap finance, which they use to make super profits from homeowners and credit card holders while paying domestic savers a pittance.

The system sucks 

While the royal commission’s revelations are shocking, they are hardly surprising.

We’re sold two great lies about how capitalism works. The first is that unfettered markets – the impersonal scramble of corporations to obtain wealth – result in the greatest welfare accruing to society.

We see the polar opposite highlighted by the commission. Left to themselves, corporations will rip off anyone and everyone – including the dead. Instead of the proverbial rising tide lifting all boats, we get the concentration of wealth at the top while the majority struggle to tread water. 

That was also proven in spades by the global financial crisis a decade ago, in which big finance had to be saved by the largest set of corporate bailouts in history. There were no bailouts for the millions left without jobs or homes.

The other lie is that by working hard and playing by the rules, anyone can climb up the ladder and get ahead. Testimonies at the commission show up that fraud as well. Jacqueline McDowall, a nurse, and her husband sought advice from a Westpac Bank planner. They have worked all their lives and were hoping to settle in a B&B for their retirement.

But playing by the rules gets you nowhere. They were charged tens of thousands in fees and for insurance. Due to the horrendous advice, they have now lost their home and most of Jacqueline’s super. 

“I was too embarrassed to tell anybody. I felt humiliated, stupid”, she told the commission. Now they have moved to the Northern Territory and expect to work until they’re 80 to make up the lost financial ground.

Their story is one of tens of thousands from around the country – people burned by corporate scams.

Yet, there’s a broader scam in which we are all caught. An old joke about a boss with a new Ferrari is more useful than a macroeconomics textbook in explaining it.

When one of his junior employees gushes over the marvel of design engineering, the boss responds, “Well, son, if you keep your head down, work hard and put in some extra hours, I just might be able to buy another one next year”.

In this system, wealth created by workers is siphoned upward and into the pockets of the millionaire and billionaire class. As Karl Marx wrote: “Capital is dead labour, that, vampire-like, only lives by sucking living labour, and lives the more, the more labour it sucks”.

What those at the top don’t get through hiring us, they’ll drain from us in other ways – interest on debts, privatisation of public assets, fraudulent planning schemes and fees for advice that is non-existent or which instructs people to hand over their hard earned pay for nothing.

If you need more evidence of this, stay tuned to the royal commission. Or just look at the balance of your bank account and compare it to the profits of the Big 4.