Why will Bill English not sanction inquiry into banks?

Bill English would rather be hauled over hot coals and dragged through broken glass than sanction a parliamentary inquiry into whether the Australian-owned trading banks are profit-gouging at New Zealanders' expense.

At least, that is the very strong impression the finance minister is giving.

If he has got a bad press in some quarters for vetoing such an investigation, his body language would seem to be saying "too bad".

He is not oblivious to the criticism.

He is very relaxed about wearing it.

Technically, the decision by Parliament's finance and expenditure select committee not to investigate why the banks had not passed on the Reserve Bank's last cut in the official cash rate to those with floating mortgages was one for the committee's members to make.

But everyone knows the National-Act New Zealand-Maori Party majority was following the finance minister's dictates in shooting down the initiative promoted by David Cunliffe, Labour's finance spokesman.

Mr English's obstruction has allowed Mr Cunliffe to claim some of the high ground in this debate.

The latter was willing to accept a compromise put up by National's members on the inquiry's terms of reference.

That too was quashed from on high.

In doing so, the Government consequently found itself on the wrong side of the argument.

Not only do Labour and the Greens want an inquiry.

Major lobby groups like Federated Farmers and the Manufacturers and Exporters Association want one.

Finsec, the major banking union, wants one.

The Reserve Bank thinks one would be very helpful.

Even the trading banks are willing to front up to one.

So why won't Mr English budge? Or the Prime Minister for that matter? After all, as Mr English himself has said, whatever a parliamentary inquiry comes up with will have no impact on interest rates.

So why not indulge the committee and let it be a surrogate for the Government by grilling the banks in public and then skewering them in its report? As Phil Goff says, the answer is that Mr English and John Key want to close down the debate.

Labour argues an inquiry was justified as it would have helped the Reserve Bank put pressure on the banks to cut rates.

Mr English, however, is looking at the question of bank margins through a different end of the political telescope.

While Mr Cunliffe and Labour can focus on the failure to cut rates, Mr English would argue he must take a far broader view of the trading banks' role in the economy, especially when an economy is in recession.

The select committee has already expressed its unhappiness with the banks in two recent reports, the latest coming out this week - barely a month after the last one.

An inquiry might see the committee feeling obliged to be even tougher in its criticism.

It would make recommendations to which the Government would have to formally respond.

Mr English, however, is thought to be less worried that the recommendations would be too tough for him to implement, and more concerned they would be too ineffectual and only offering powers that are already available to the Reserve Bank.

The Government fears it would be the butt of subsequent public disappointment, rather than the committee.

It also believes pressuring the banks is better done in the closed-door meetings that Mr English and Mr Key have been holding with the banks, than by megaphone in public.

Labour believes that stance is typical of a cautious, conservative administration that is afraid to take risks.

Both Government and Opposition do agree the banks are creaming too much profit.

National, however, is grateful the Australian banks are still lending to New Zealand companies, even though it thinks interest rates for businesses are too high.

The priority is saving jobs.

If that means higher interest rates than are justified, then that is something National can live with in the short-term.

Maintaining stability in the financial sector is paramount.

The static produced by an inquiry might not undermine that stability - but the static generated by an inquiry would not be helpful in keeping the banks' relationship with the Government on an even keel, especially if an inquiry went feral.

Though unlikely to happen under the chairmanship of National's Craig Foss, Mr English's big fear would be losing control of the inquiry, especially if Mr Cunliffe got the opportunity to dominate proceedings.

Mr English is understandably reluctant to give Mr Cunliffe a platform, even though the Labour front-bencher can be his own worst enemy when grandstanding.

However, Mr Cunliffe's campaign against the banks has been tactically astute.

He has been helped considerably by the Reserve Bank's assessment of trading bank margins and statements by governor Alan Bollard that there is scope for further reductions in floating rates.

Mr Cunliffe has not over-egged things, instead giving reasoned arguments why one of Parliament's most important committees should investigate.

He succeeded in getting the select committee to at least investigate holding an inquiry.

It was an important concession.

It guaranteed the next round of publicity would be about National, Act New Zealand and the Maori Party blocking an inquiry.

By focusing on the banks not cutting interest rates sufficiently to enable new investment, Mr Cunliffe has found a means for Labour to get right back into the key debate about jobs in a constructive fashion.

National's assessment, however, is that while a lot of people have strong motives for holding an inquiry, a lot more aren't that fussed one way or the other.

National believes it has a large political buffer because mortgage rates have fallen substantially in the past year or so - from an average of nearly 11% to 6.4% - thereby putting tidy sums of cash back in people's pockets.

They are therefore (at least for now) less worried about missing out on a final round of cuts than they otherwise might have been.

- John Armstrong is The New Zealand Herald political correspondent.


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