25 Nov 2019

Australian Westpac suspends bonuses amid money-laundering scandal

7:52 pm on 25 November 2019

Australia's Westpac says it will shut down a second service and temporarily halt bonuses for some executives, as it attempts to address the fallout from one of Australia's biggest money laundering scandals.

Sydney, Australia - June 26, 2016: Close-up of Westpac signage. Westpac is one of the four largest banks in Australia.

Australia's Westpac says it will withhold either all or part of 2019 bonuses for its full executive team and several members of the general management team. Photo: 123rf

Accused by regulators of contravening anti-money laundering laws 23 million times by failing to monitor and report suspicious payments including those by known child exploiters, the country's No. 2 lender, which self-reported some of the breaches, is under increasing pressure to contain the crisis.

But while Australia's prime minister said last week the bank's board should reflect deeply on chief executive Brian Hartzer's position, Westpac Chairman Lindsay Maxsted told local media on Sunday he thought letting go of Mr Hartzer would be destabilising.

"We think for Brian not to be CEO would be an amazing piece of destabilization of a company. But we also understand, on the other hand, there is some destabilising going on, possibly, by him being here," he told The Australian Financial Review.

Westpac said it would close LitePay, a cross-border payment service for small transactions, which follows the announcement last week that it was shutting down a separate service, Australasian Cash Management, which could handle large transactions.

Australia's financial crime watchdog AUSTRAC has said Westpac set up its own transfer platforms because it considered SWIFT, the platform for most international transfers, to be too cumbersome.

Westpac also said on Sunday the bank will withhold either all or part of 2019 bonuses for its full executive team and several members of the general management team.

Shares in Westpac were down 1.4 percent on Monday, dropping for a fourth consecutive session and bringing its cumulative losses since AUSTRAC's accusations to 8 percent or about $A7.6 billion ($NZ8.4b).

Investors said the lender needed to do more.

"I think some heads rolling would appease the market short-term and at least show that they are serious about changing the culture which clearly seems to have been at fault," said Henry Jennings, a senior analyst and portfolio manager at Marcus Today.

The board itself, however, will also be at risk at Westpac's 12 December shareholder meeting.

If owners of more than a quarter of the company's shares vote against its executive pay plans at the meeting, it will be the second year in a row. Under Australia's 'two strikes' law, if investors vote down executive pay two years running, they can call for the entire board to be removed.

In a separate statement on Monday, Westpac said measures to improve financial crime monitoring will increase expenses by as much as $A80m before taxes in the 2020 financial year.

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