Businesses denied banking services as banks tighten up who can have an account

Businesses say it has got tougher to get a basic bank account asbanks tighten up who they will offer services to.

Richard Tacon, chief executive of NZX-listed coal miner, Bathurst Resources, said it was now looking for a third bank to handle its accounts after being given notice by Westpac five years ago and then ANZ six months ago.

“We were originally banked by Westpac out of Queenstown and that was going along swimmingly until five years ago and through their ESG [environmental, social and governance] declarations they wanted to get out of any exposure to coal and particularly thermal coal.”

At the time 100 per cent of Bathurst’s business was thermal coal but changes since meant only 30 per cent of its revenue came from that, he said.

“We went to ANZ and that was fine until about six months ago when we got a letter out of the blue saying that they are moving away from anyone who has exposure to thermal coal.”

Tacon said it only used the ANZ for transactional banking, but had been given about 12 months to find another bank, which it was working on.

“There are a number of options when you start going down the tiers – but then that exposes us and our creditors – it is not a good state of affairs really.

“There is a number of banks we have been approached by and probably some of those are quite reputable – but some of our key customers would be quite nervous we were being banked by these people.”

An ANZ spokeswoman said for privacy reasons, it did not go into detail about its banking relationships.

“However, each year, ANZ reviews its social and environmental lending policies and sets public environmental, social and governance (ESG) targets, many of which are aligned with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals.

“As part of our public commitments to transition to a net zero carbon economy we are reducing our exposure to thermal coal. This is outlined in the bank’s latest ESG investor presentation released in November.”

She said that commitment and its updated policy had resulted in it reviewing its relationships and lending activities – where appropriate – with some customers.

Bathurst isn’t alone in facing challenges.

A New Zealand-owned and run finance company, which doesn’t want to be named, has been blocked from opening a transaction account with 11 banks in New Zealand.

Steven Holden, of Neu Capital, who is the investment banker for the finance company, said a series of high-profile money laundering fines and a focus on which sort of businesses banks got involved with had meant banks were more risk-averse.

“It’s a bit like you and me getting a job and then not being able to open a bank account.

“Therefore the employer can’t pay you therefore you can’t get a job. It’s a problem on a personal level, which is hugely relevant and prevalent in the third world.”

But Holden said in New Zealand it was hitting businesses that were operating legitimately but were being caught out over concerns over ESG issues or anti money-laundering legislation.

The finance company has been operating in New Zealand for eight years and has a consumer lending business it has bank accounts for.

But it wants to start a new vehicle financing business and a condition of its funders is that it opens a new bank account to run the business through.

Holden said after trying 11 out of 15 banks it was likely he would have to restructure the deal and come up with anew legal structure, which would add more cost and complexity.

“It sends a big red flag to the people who want to give them money overseas – how come you can’t open a bank account? That seems pretty odd. It just slows everything down.”

Holden thinks the banks, particularly the big four ANZ, ASB, Westpac and BNZ should be indemnified by the Government to allow them to open up a basic transaction account.

“It’s a cheque account, not a credit account, they are not asking for a loan. It’s just pure money in, money out. It’s kind of like a basic requirement, like broadband or access to water,” he said.

Holden said he had also been speaking to some legal partners who said it was an unusual situation and it had been happening for the last year or two.

“It is really problematic. There should be some way a bank, as long as there are not obvious red flags going up, can be indemnified by the government for a certain amount.

“You have got way worse companies out there with bank accounts than any of mine, some of them doing a lot less savoury business, and they have all got bank accounts. If those guys went today and tried to get a bank account they would be told to stuff off as well.”

New Zealand Bankers Association chief executive Roger Beaumont said banks operated in a competitive environment and were very much in the business of attracting and retaining customers.

“Banks also take their legal obligations very seriously.

“The drive for business is balanced with the need to identify and manage risk, including compliance with the regulatory framework in which they operate. These are commercial decisions for the banks themselves, made on a case-by-case basis.”

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