March 18, 2019 / 11:01 PM / 7 months ago

Australia's Westpac exits financial advice, takes charge to shake up wealth unit

SYDNEY (Reuters) - Westpac Banking Corp, said on Tuesday it would exit its financial advice business, the last of Australia’s top four banks to do so, as regulators increase pressure on the scandal-ridden financial sector to act in customers’ best interests.

FILE PHOTO: A pedestrian looks at his phone as he walks past a logo for Australia's Westpac Banking Corp located outside a branch in central Sydney, Australia, November 5, 2018. REUTERS/David Gray

Australia’s second-largest bank said it would sell the business to Viridian Advisory and merge the remaining of its BT Financial Group units - private banking, investment platforms and retirement funds - into its consumer and business divisions.

It did not provide a deal value for the sale, but said it would take a restructuring charge of up to A$300 million ($213.2 million) that would be partially offset by the proceeds and A$20 million in productivity savings by 2020.

“Rising costs and lower fees had meant that the advice business has been unprofitable for some time, and we see how much downside risk there is in terms of remediation and fines when we get it wrong,” Chief Executive Officer Brian Hartzer told analysts in Sydney.

“We’re realigning our capabilities into the lines of business where it makes most sense based on customer needs.”

Westpac’s exit from personal financial advice follows a year-long public inquiry into financial sector greed and wrongdoing which has put pressure on banks and wealth managers to fix serious problems with compliance, governance, ethics and accountability.

Among other reforms, the inquiry called for banks to cut high fees paid to financial advisers to sell products such as life insurance regardless of whether they were in the best interests of clients.

Last financial year, Westpac booked a A$380 million charge to account for refunds, the costs of remediating wronged customers and higher litigation costs.

A number of Westpac’s salaried financial advisers and support staff would transition to Viridian and about 10,000 customers would be offered an option to move, Hartzer said. About 900 people would be made redundant.

Westpac’s peers - Commonwealth Bank of Australia, Australia and New Zealand Banking Group, and National Australia Bank - have all progressed plans to exit financial advisory franchises in a bid to cut costs and simplify their structures.

Westpac changes were expected to be earnings per share-positive in 2020 with one-off costs from the sale, initially estimated at between A$250-A$300 million, to be spread over fiscal 2019 and 2020.

As part of the changes the head of its consumer bank, George Frazis, and head of BT Financial, Brad Cooper, would depart, the bank said.

David Lindberg, the current head of its business bank, would take over the consumer unit - a move analysts believe places Lindberg as a potential CEO successor.

Reporting by Paulina Duran in Sydney and Ambar Warrick in Bengaluru; Editing by Stephen Coates

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