The Banking Royal Commission Implementation Roadmap & Agri Lending

The Treasurer today announced the Banking Royal Commission “Roadmap.”

The roadmap document, available here, provides a response to each of the recommendations made by the Royal Commission into Misconduct in the Banking, Superannuation and Financial Services Industry.

The recommendations relevant to Agricultural Lending, and the response today, are set out below:

Recommendation 1.11 – Farm debt mediation – A national scheme of farm debt mediation should be enacted.

Roadmap:

The Government is working with states and territories through the Agriculture Ministers’ Forum (AGMIN) to progress work on the establishment of a national farm debt mediation scheme

A National Farm Debt Mediation scheme is a universally supported measure, which has been recommended by numerous inquiries over several years.  Implementing such a popular and well-supported measure should be relatively straightforward.

Recommendation 1.12 – Valuations of land – APRA should amend Prudential Standard APS 220 to:

  • require that internal appraisals of the value of land taken or to be taken as security should be independent of loan origination, loan processing and loan decision processes; and
  • provide for valuation of agricultural land in a manner that will recognise, to the extent possible:
    • the likelihood of external events affecting its realisable value; and
    • the time that may be taken to realise the land at a reasonable price affecting its realisable value.

Roadmap:

On 25 March 2019, APRA released for public consultation proposed revisions of Prudential Standard APS 220 Credit Quality. Consultation closed on 28 June 2019. APRA intends to finalise the standard in the second half of 2019 with a view to it becoming effective from 1 July 2020.

An independent internal valuation will add some cost and delays for some remote customers, but otherwise should not be controversial, or difficult to implement.

As discussed here in greater detail, it is harder to understand how valuers will change their practices to implement the second recommendation around “external events.”

Recommendation 1.13 – Charging default interest – The ABA should amend the Banking Code to provide that, while a declaration remains in force, banks will not charge default interest on loans secured by agricultural land in an area declared to be affected by drought or other natural disaster.

Roadmap:

The ABA has announced the amended Banking Code, incorporating recommendations 1.8 and 1.13, will be implemented by March 2020.

Recommendation 1.14 – Distressed agricultural loans – When dealing with distressed agricultural loans, banks should:

  • ensure that those loans are managed by experienced agricultural bankers;
  • offer farm debt mediation as soon as a loan is classified as distressed;
  • manage every distressed loan on the footing that working out will be the best outcome for bank and borrower, and enforcement the worst;
  • recognise that appointment of receivers or any other form of external administrator is a remedy of last resort; and
  • cease charging default interest when there is no realistic prospect of recovering the amount charged.

Roadmap:

The Government expects that banks will implement recommendation 1.14 as soon as possible.

Banks will believe that they already manage every distressed loan on the footing that working out will be the best outcome for bank and borrower, and enforcement the worst and recognise that appointment of receivers or any other form of external administrator is a remedy of last resort.  In my opinion they will be untroubled by those recommendations, and comfortable with immediate implementation.

A requirement to offer farm debt mediation as soon as a loan is distressed may be problematic – depending on what is meant by distressed, which is not otherwise defined.  For example, in Victoria a lender can only initiate FDM by serving a notice that they “intend to take enforcement action.”  If the recommendation is intended to make FDM available in situations where enforcement is not planned, then the respective FDM legislation will require amendment.

A mandatory requirement to ensure Agri loans are managed by experienced agricultural bankers will have banks working to understand what “managed” means.  Often the banker in contact with the customer is not the banker making the final credit decision.  Does the recommendation require the customer contact to be an experienced agri banker, or the credit approver, or both?

New rules from APRA? A draft APS220 update

In March 2019 APRA released a draft Prudential Standard APS 220 Credit Risk Management.  The new standard is intended to replace the current APS 220 Credit Quality.

The revised standard, available together with a discussion paper here, represents the first significant update since 2006.  It provides APRA with the opportunity to respond to both the Banking Royal Commission, and also to recent guidance issued by the Basel Committee.

The change in the name of the standard is intended to emphasise the importance of a ‘whole of loan life’ approach, rather than just focus on origination.  Some noteworthy points include:

The cost of bank recognition of borrower hardship  

The definition of restructured loans will expand.  Currently, restructured loans are those where loan terms have been modified “for reasons related to the financial difficulties of an entity.”  Under the draft standard this would expand to loans for which “a borrower is experiencing temporary financial difficulty or hardship in meeting its financial commitments.”

Further, the rehabilitation period – the length of time for which loans must meet those modified terms to be considered as performing – will increase from 6 months to 12 months, likewise increasing the time period in which a higher risk weighting penalty is applied.

These two measures have the potential to make it more expensive for banks that grant hardship relief.  Applying a cost overlay if hardship relief is granted is probably technically sound, and conservative, but might surprise those who believe that banks should be encouraged to provide hardship relief, not penalised.

Use of covenants

The draft standard makes it mandatory for banks to consider the use of “covenants designed to limit the ADI’s exposure to changes in the future risk profile of the borrower.”

The most common covenants are based around financial ratios such as interest cover ratios and loan to valuation ratios.  The use of such covenants was heavily criticised by another arm of government – the office of the Small Business Ombudsman – with the result that the 2019 Banking Code of Practice no longer allow banks to use them (except in relation to specialised lending) as an event of default.

It seems that lenders to small business might need to choose between complying with the draft APS220, and complying with their own Banking Code of Practice – because they may be unable to comply with both.

Valuation methodology

The discussion paper notes that the draft standard implements one of the recommendations of the Royal Commission, requiring valuations of agricultural land taken as security to:

take into account the likelihood of external events, such as drought and flood, which may impact the valuation of the land

Prior to the Royal Commission, valuations were widely understood to be point-in-time assessments of current value under current conditions, and were not thought to be estimates of future value.  In most cases, reliance beyond a three month period from the date of valuation is specifically excluded by a written disclaimer.

It will be interesting to see how valuers respond to the change if it proceeds as proposed.  Some may expand their reports to include commentary on the likelihood of external events for the three month period in which the valuations are “live.”  Others may add (more!) boiler-plate text to make it even clearer than they do not provide a view as to future value.

Next steps?

The period for feedback closed on 28 June 2019.  Market feedback suggests that further, less formal, consultation processes may already be underway.

Concessional RIC loans for farmers impacted by Drought or Flood

The Federal Government established the Regional Investment Corporation in March 2018 to administer concessional farm business loans.  This began with Farm Drought loans, and in 2019 was expanded to also include AgRebuild loans for farmers affected by the North Queensland floods.

The AgRebuild loans are very tightly targeted, but eligibility for the Farm Drought loans is broader than many might expect.

Loans for working farmers

The loans are available owners of farms that are Australian citizens or permanent residents – although it is important to understand that the farms can be held through companies or trusts.

Not all members of a farming partnership must work on the farm, but at least one person must contribute at least 75% of their labour to the farm business under normal circumstances, and at least one partner must rely on the farm for their income – so the loans are not available for corporates.

Terms and pricing

As of 1 August, the year loans are currently at a variable interest rate of 3.11%, with no application or other fees,

Drought loans are interest only for the first five years.  AgRebuild loans are interest free for the first two years, then interest only for the next three years.

Support of the current lender

Although the loans can be used to reduce bank debt, they can’t be used to completely replace it – normally a farmer must keep 50% of their debt with a “commercial lender.”

It’s worth highlighting that RIC will often agree to take second mortgage security.  This means that in practical terms the commercial lender’s security cover (i.e. loan-to-value ratio) can significantly improve, and so they might be quite happy about RIC becoming involved!

One other point is that even if the current lender isn’t prepared to confirm support, it may still be possible to get a conditional offer from RIC.  With a much better LVR to offer the incoming lender it may be easier for farmers to secure a refinance.

Drought loans

Drought loans are up to $2m, available to farmers across Australia, which can be used to:

  • Prepare for drought or recover from the effects of drought.
  • Pay down debt.
  • Invest in productivity or water efficiency measures.

Farmers will need to provide a copy of their drought management plan.

Flood loans (AgRebuild)

The AgRebuild loans have a much tighter eligibility criteria.  They are for farmers affected by the flooding caused by the Monsoon Trough from 25 January to 14 February 2019 North Queensland.

The AgRebuild loans are for a maximum of $5m, but rates and other terms are the same.

There are some key differences to the drought loans:

  • As noted, the loans are interest free for the first two years.
  • RIC might waive the requirement that 50% of the debt stays with a commercial lender – but only in cases of “extreme hardship,” and will be assessed on a case by case basis.
  • The loans are only available until 30 June 2020.

Restrictions

There are some restrictions:

  • RIC is not a lender of last resort and will not lend unless it is satisfied that the farm is viable and has capacity to repay the loan.
  • RIC will require a drought management loan for drought loans.
  • As above, the ongoing involvement of a commercial lender is required, although this can be a new lender in some cases.

Summary

For eligible farmers the RIC loans can be a great option and it is well worth checking availability.  There is a lot of useful information at www.ric.gov.au, or you can contact the author on 0404 885 062.  You can also get structured assistance through a website that I have a link to, via my involvement with Ecosse Capital Partners: ricloan.com.au.


This article first appeared on my Harbourside Advisory website

Senate Inquiry Report: Credit and financial services targeted at Australians at risk of financial hardship

On 22 February the Senate Economics Reference Committee inquiry into Credit and financial services targeted at Australians at risk of financial hardship issued its report, available here.

Much of the report deals with the regulation of credit providers, but one aspect will be of interest to Restructuring & Turnaround professionals, recommendation 8:

The committee recommends that the government implement a regulatory
framework for all credit and debt management, repair and negotiation activities
that are not currently licensed by the Australian Financial Security Authority,
including:

  • compulsory membership of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority, giving clients access to an External Dispute Resolution scheme;

  • strict licensing or authorisation by the Australian Securities and Investments Commission or the Australian Financial Security Authority;

  • prohibition of upfront fees for service;

  • prescribed scale of costs;

  • an obligation to act in the best interests of their clients; and

  • banning unsolicited sales.

There seems to be growing recognition of the problems caused by phoenixing, and growing concern about the role played by those unscrupulous “pre-insolvency advisers” who promote and facilitate phoenixing.

A regulatory framework ‘for all credit and debt management, repair and negotiation activities’ has the potential to apply to pre-insolvency advisers – although the detail suggests that it is personal credit which is the primary focus for the Committee.

Restructuring and Turnaround professionals who believe – as I do – that there is a pressing need for regulation of pre-insolvency advisers should take any opportunity via submissions or otherwise to ensure that legislators understand the link between phoenixing and pre-insolvency advisers, and the importance of any regulatory framework extending to business and corporate ‘debt management.’

The 2019 Inquiry impacting Restructuring and Turnaround professionals?

Last night the Senate asked the Legal and Constitutional Affairs Legislation Committee to conduct an Inquiry into:

The ability of consumers and small businesses to exercise their legal rights through the justice system, and whether there are fair, affordable and appropriate resolution processes to resolve disputes with financial service providers, in particular the big four banks

The terms of reference include inquiry into whether “banks generally have behaved in a way that meets community standards when dealing with consumers trying to exercise their legal rights,” which has the potential to extend into the appointment and conduct of receivers.

The Committee is due to report by 8 April 2019.  The full terms of reference are below

(a) whether the way in which banks and other financial service providers have used the legal system to resolve disputes with consumers and small businesses has reflected fairness and proportionality, including:

(i) whether banks and other financial service providers have used the legal system to pressure customers into accepting settlements that did not reflect their legal rights,

(ii) whether banks and other financial service providers have pursued legal claims against customers despite being aware of misconduct by their own officers or employees that may mitigate those claims, and

(iii) whether banks generally have behaved in a way that meets community standards when dealing with consumers trying to exercise their legal rights;

(b) the accessibility and appropriateness of the court system as a forum to resolve these disputes fairly, including:

(i) the ability of people in conflict with a large financial institution to attain affordable, quality legal advice and representation,

(ii) the cost of legal representation and court fees,

(iii) costs risks of unsuccessful litigation, and

(iv) the experience of participants in a court process who appear unrepresented;

(c) the accessibility and appropriateness of the Australian Financial Complaints Authority (AFCA) as an alternative forum for resolving disputes including:

(i) whether the eligibility criteria and compensation thresholds for AFCA warrant change,

(ii) whether AFCA has the powers and resources it needs,

(iii) whether AFCA faces proper accountability measures, and

(iv) whether enhancement to their test case procedures, or other expansions to AFCA’s role in law reform, is warranted;

(d) the accessibility of community legal centre advice relating to financial matters; and

(e) any other related matters.

The Committee is due to report by 8 April 2019.


Inquiries dealing with the conduct and performance of restructuring and turnaround professionals since 2010:

2017 – Senate Select Committee on Lending to Primary Production Customers

2016 – Parliamentary Joint Committee Inquiry into The impairment of customer loans

2015 – Senate Inquiry into Insolvency in the Australian construction industry

2014 – Senate Inquiry into Performance of the Australian Securities and Investments Commission

2012 – Senate Inquiry into The post-GFC banking sector

2010 – Senate Inquiry into The regulation, registration and remuneration of insolvency practitioners in Australia

The Final Report of the Banking Royal Commission

Business and Agricultural lending accounts for only 30-odd pages of the almost 500 page volume 1 of the final Report of the Banking Royal Commission.

Most significantly, the Report recommends broadening the application of the Code of Banking Practice to small businesses with debts of up to $5m (currently $3m).

Notably, the Report recommends against extending the application of the National Consumer Credit Protection legislation to Small Business.

Lending to Agribusiness

The report recommends that internal valuations should be conducted by bank staff independent of the loan origination and loan decision processes.  That may add a little to costs, and cause some delays for remote regional customers, but is otherwise hard to argue against.

The Report also recommends that valuations of agricultural land should be conducted:

in a manner that will recognise, to the extent possible:

  • the likelihood of external events affecting its realisable value; and

  • the time that may be taken to realise the land at a reasonable price affecting its realisable value

The first adjustment would seem to be a complex calculation, and arguably unnecessary –  many would say that the market implicitly adjusts for such factors, and so there is no need to make an explicit adjustment.

The second adjustment seems to seek an allowance for holding costs that would result in a modest decrease in value – but it would have been very much easier if the Report had identified a specific period: six months perhaps?

Dealing with Distressed Agricultural Loans

The Report recommends that banks dealing with ‘distressed agricultural loans’ should:

  • ensure that those loans are managed by experienced agricultural bankers;

  • offer farm debt mediation as soon as a loan is classified as distressed;

  • manage every distressed loan on the footing that working out will be the best outcome for bank and borrower, and enforcement the worst;

  • recognise that appointment of receivers or any other form of external administrator is a remedy of last resort; and

  • cease charging default interest when there is no realistic prospect of recovering the amount charged.

The Report does not provide a definition of ‘distressed,’ and it is not a technical term defined in APS 220, and so unfortunately the practical application of these recommendations is probably not as clear as its author intended.

Currently Farm Debt Mediation is only available where enforcement action has commenced.  The call for earlier availability – which will be supported by banks – will require legislative amendment.

Lastly, least surprisingly, Commissioner Hayne adds his voice to the unanimous calls for a National Farm Debt Mediation Scheme.  The Government has said that it will ‘take action on all 76 recommendations.’  Perhaps we will finally see a National Farm Debt Mediation scheme.

Disclosure of lender-imposed conditions

The 2019 Financial Reporting season has thrown up examples of very specific disclosure of the conditions imposed on listed borrowers by their lenders.

Case 1 – The amount and timing of an equity raise.

Case 2 – A requirement to conduct a ‘strategic review’ of ‘funding options.’

Case 3 – The timing and requirement for an equity raise to meet a balance sheet ratio.

Two-edged sword

Such disclosure is a two-edged sword.

Certainly, potential purchasers of the shares will be very well informed – but at the same time, the disclosure is likely to make it harder for management to achieve a turnaround. Perceived financial fragility may lead key staff to look elsewhere, and will probably make it harder for the businesses to win new business.  In some cases, it will also create liquidity problems if suppliers decide to reduce trade credit limits.*

Why is such disclosure required?

Listed companies have multiple disclosure requirements.  The Listing Rules impose a continuous disclosure regime, with limited exemptions – for example where negotiations are underway, or are confidential to another party.  The Accounting Standards also impose further disclosure requirements.

If disclosure was made to comply with the continuous disclosure regime then arguably it should have been made earlier – when the companies received notice of their lender’s requirements.

Disclosure in the Annual Report suggests that the disclosure was prompted by the auditor’s review of the financial statements – but for an outsider it is difficult to say whether it reflects a belated ‘catch up’ of continuous disclosure, or whether it is intended to ensure compliance with Accounting Standards.

Theoretical arguments about the reasons for the disclosure and whether it is strictly required may not be much help up for companies up against a deadline.  Two of the case studies had audit reports signed on the latest possible date – perhaps they simply ran out of time?

How should directors mitigate harmful disclosure?

Of course it is important that directors ensure that investors are adequately informed – but they should try to avoid do so in a way that makes it harder for the business to achieve a turnaround.

Harmful disclosure can be mitigated – but it becomes so much harder after balance date.

Businesses in turnaround mode should be projecting their compliance with covenants as part of their normal board reporting.  If non-compliance seems likely, then it is important to negotiate with lenders well ahead of any deadline.  Of course, those negotiations are far easier if supported by a well thought-out and comprehensive turnaround plan that will provide comfort that any underlying issues have been identified, and will be addressed.


First published here