CBA CEO: Borrowing to invest is asking for trouble

Matt Comyn recalls the time when he met a low-income retiree who had lost their life savings after receiving very poor investment advice.

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Commonwealth Bank of Australia (ASX: CBA) chief executive Matt Comyn has dealt with many crises in his career.

He was promoted to CEO in the midst of the money laundering scandal in 2017. Then the next year he had to answer to the Royal Commission into the finance industry.

And this year he’s led Australia’s largest bank through the COVID-19 pandemic and a devastated economy.

But he never pretends that his troubles are anything close to what some ordinary Australians endure.

At a “Meet The CEO” event at the University of NSW, Comyn this week recalled his experience leading CBA’s response to the collapse of Storm Financial Limited.

Advice firm Storm Financial went under in 2009 with losses over $3 billion. The company had signed up vulnerable cash-poor clients to margin loans, which were issued by the CBA.

Storm customers, most of them elderly, together lost more than $800 million of their life savings.

Although it was Storm Financial that had provided inappropriate financial advice, CBA had to face angry clients after the collapse as they rightly sought answers.

Comyn, 9 years before he became chief executive, masochistically put his hand up to face the music on behalf of CBA.

After an intense creditors’ meeting ran 2 hours over in Brisbane, Comyn’s taxi had grown tired of waiting and was nowhere to be seen. It was 11.30pm on the outskirts of the city. 

Fortunately, one of the Storm Financial victims offered him a lift. 

“They’d lost their life savings. They were in their mid-60s – same age as my mum. They’d lost everything,” recalled Comyn.

“And he was [now] trying to do some work as a part-timer at a Subway store.” 

Never borrow to invest in volatile assets

The experience had a profound impact on Comyn.

He still rates the potential for personal devastation as the worst thing about his role as a bank CEO.

“Even when the bank hasn’t done anything wrong, just the sheer distress associated with people unable to pay back loans or being in a difficult situation – it’s tough to see that.”

Financially, Comyn can’t emphasise enough the risks of borrowing to invest.

“Actually seeing and meeting customers, you get a real appreciation of the dangers of debt and leverage,” he said.

“When things go wrong, unfortunately in banking the implications at a personal or a business level can be really severe.”

Margin loans, which fund stock purchases, can be especially lethal. 

Unlike home loans, when the value of the borrowed portfolio drops by a certain percentage the lender can call in the debt.

Incredibly, the Federal Court only fined Storm’s husband-and-wife directors Emmanuel and Julie Cassimatis $70,000 each.

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