The great bank data disappearing act

by | Dec 1, 2011 | Business

Public document culling would make Sir Humphrey proud.

The Reserve Bank and Treasury have purged public documents at the behest of the banks.

WITH the prospect of further sovereign support for the banks, courtesy of the crisis in Europe, now is hardly the time for the government to be embarking on some frolic of disappearing documents. But this is exactly what BusinessDay has busted the Reserve Bank and Treasury doing, purging information about the wholesale funding guarantee from the public database at the behest of the banks.

During the course of an investigation into the wholesale funding guarantee, we discovered large swathes of information relating to the use of the guarantee had been expunged from the website.

This culling of public data follows revelations here earlier in the year that the corporate regulator, the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) had been deleting evidence of the waivers it had provided to liquidators.

It seems the policy that underpins the new secrecy is as banal and indulgent as regulators and banks wanting to avoid embarrassment.

In any case, as pointed out by some of the tech-savvy readers online today, once information has been put on the internet, it can usually be retrieved. Indeed, there are internet archives such as Wayback Machine that do this. But that is hardly the point. Why are publicly funded government bodies deleting public information from the public view in the first place?

Now the RBA and Treasury appear to have made an even greater mockery of the government’s ”commitment to transparency and accountability”. The funding guarantee scheme is an unprecedented concession for the banks – they are underpinned by the taxpayer and, thanks to sovereign largesse, cannot go bust.

Nonetheless, almost all detail relating to the billions of dollars in taxpayer-guaranteed funding has vanished from government websites. Only the details of current guarantees survive, at least in reasonably accessible form.

The presentation of the information that is available is so piecemeal and cumbersome as to be misleading.

For a start, even to search for a current liability, there is the chore of having to open individual PDFs to extract quantum and interest rate particulars applying under each certificate.

Why is the information not available in a form that the public can conveniently analyse?

When requesting information relating to the funding guarantees, BusinessDay was met with this response from the RBA: ”The website lists all existing certificates. Details of expired liabilities are removed when requested by the relevant financial institution.”

When pressed for an explanation as to why a private financial institution could demand that public information relating to taxpayer support be taken off a public database, the central bank tweaked its message. ”The Reserve Bank publishes all current liabilities on the guarantee scheme website in accordance with our responsibilities under the scheme rules. If an issuer bank cancels a certificate, it is no longer a guaranteed liability and the certificate is removed from the website.”

Treasury had deflected the questions to the RBA after, incredibly, protesting that the information was ”confidential”.

Neither would comment on who was responsible for the policy decision to censor the information.

This all sits very oddly with ”the government’s continuing commitment to transparency and accountability” that is highlighted at the end of six-monthly reports on the guarantee schemes and the original undertaking in 2008:

”Details of the scheme, including participating institutions and the liabilities that are covered, will be made available on a suitable public website,” promised

Treasury. Why then was it not possible to inspect particulars of every liability, ongoing or matured, in a straightforward Excel spreadsheet? We can only surmise that both the government and the banks are trying to pretend there was never any corporate welfare in the first place.

For the banks’ part, it is harder to justify $10 million executive salaries for running a taxpayer-guaranteed institution. And for the government’s part, the censorship can only be put down to an obsequious back-pedalling on previous public commitments to appease the powerful banks.

Unconvincingly trying to rationalise their role in the purge, Treasury responded that public information about sovereign support for the banks had suddenly become confidential.

”Further data on liabilities issued under the scheme by individual participating institutions is not provided on the guarantee scheme website for reasons of confidentiality,” a spokesman told BusinessDay.

It was the sort of line which would have made Sir Humphrey Appleby proud.

How mysterious, it wasn’t confidential before.


Michael West

Michael West

Michael West established to focus on journalism of high public interest, particularly the rising power of corporations over democracy. Formerly a journalist and editor at Fairfax newspapers and a columnist at News Corp, West was appointed Adjunct Associate Professor at the University of Sydney’s School of Social and Political Sciences. You can follow Michael on Twitter @MichaelWestBiz.

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