International Comparisons of Bank Margins – August 1994 3. International Comparisons

(a) Comparability problems

  1. Lack of data comparability is the major reason why the Bank has treated the OECD and Salomon Brothers' comparisons with a good deal of caution. Appendix 1 details the characteristics of the data used in those two studies, and their lack of comparability; this section explains the problem in more general terms.
  2. The core borrowing and lending activities for most banks, including Australian banks, are those undertaken in their domestic markets, through the banks themselves and sometimes through their domestic non-bank subsidiaries. Most banks have some offshore business conducted through branches of the parent bank or through subsidiaries. The offshore operations are often quite different from the core domestic activities, tending to be concentrated to a greater degree in wholesale financial markets where margins are fine. Chart 2 shows net interest margins for the four major Australian banks on their domestic and overseas businesses. The average margin on domestic business is about 2 percentage points higher than that on overseas business. Given these differences, measures of margins should, where possible, be confined to the domestic activities of the banks, excluding all offshore operations, as well as the activities of domestic subsidiaries. Unfortunately, banks generally do not publish the data necessary to calculate margins on the basis of the domestic operations of the bank.
  3. The figures used for Australian banks in this study are based on their domestic operations. Not all Australian banks publish detailed data on this basis – where data are not published, the Bank has obtained figures from banks directly or, where that was not possible, it has derived estimates from the global and parent bank data. A similar domestic classification is used for the UK and Canada. For the US and New Zealand banks, global figures are used, but as these banks (apart from the Bank of New Zealand) have negligible overseas operations, this should not significantly distort the comparisons.
  4. Information on domestic operations is not available for banks in European countries, which severely limits the extent to which banks in these countries can be compared with English-speaking countries. For this reason, and because of the substantial differences in the nature of business undertaken by banks in these countries, the focus here is on international comparisons of Australian banks and their counterparts in other English-speaking countries.
  5. A second problem concerns the choice of banks to be included in the sample from each country. Banks are not all alike; some can operate quite profitably on very low margins while others have different mixes of business and require high margins to achieve the same degree of profitability. This is most clearly illustrated in the US where the large ‘money centre’ banks, which rely almost exclusively on large wholesale business and income from fees, operate profitably at interest margins of less than 2 per cent, whereas full-service retail banks in the US normally require margins in excess of 4 per cent ( Chart 3). If the sample of banks used for the US included money centre banks, interest margins would be biased downwards and could not be compared validly with figures for other countries derived from samples weighted more heavily to retail banks.

(b) Bank selection

  1. This study has delved into individual bank figures to build up as comparable a body of data as possible (see Appendix 2 for details). Despite this substantial effort, however, the Bank is aware that significant and largely unavoidable difficulties remain, which preclude true comparability. We believe these data are about the best that could be constructed but we do not believe that they are good enough to draw strong conclusions from small variations in margins.
  2. The banks included in this study were chosen on the basis that they were representative of their domestic banking industries. In most countries the top four or five banks were selected. They are banks which have a significant presence in their home market, with a mix of business and household, plus securities investment/trading activities, and payment system obligations. In Australia the four major banks are used. In the UK it is the four ‘high street banks’, in New Zealand the four largest banks, and in Canada the largest five banks. For these countries, the banks chosen comprise at least two thirds of domestic banking assets. The choice of representative banks in the USA is more difficult because of the number of banks (12,000) and the diversity among them. In the end, the 40 largest banks, other than money centre banks, were selected; they comprise around one third of domestic banking assets. A full listing of the US banks included in this study is given in Appendix 3.
  3. Another issue in compiling comparable data is the effect of differences in accounting conventions among countries. These are highlighted where banks are required to report their results according to different principles in different countries. Australian banks which raise funds from the public in the US, for example, are required to provide the US Securities and Exchange Commission with certain balance sheet and profit and loss items according to US Generally Accepted Accounting Principles (GAAP). Their annual reports show data for net profit/loss and equity according to both the Australian and GAAP standards. For 1993 the three major privately-owned major banks reported an after-tax profit of $1.4 billion by Australian standards but a profit of $1.1 billion according to US GAAP. Unfortunately it is not possible to rework the data published by banks according to a common accounting standard. This illustrates the point that not too much weight can be placed on small differences in measures of performance between countries.

(c) Findings

(i) Interest margins

  1. Net interest margins have fallen in most countries since the late 1980s, with the exception of the US where margins have risen in recent years (Chart 4). Margins in Australia increased significantly in 1988, reflecting a flight to bank deposits as safe haven investments after the stock market crash of October 1987, which acted to lower average deposit costs. They have fallen subsequently to levels below those in the second half of the 1980s.
  2. Banks in the US currently have the highest margins, estimated at 4.6 per cent in 1993. One factor contributing to higher net interest margins in recent years is that US banks have a lower proportion of non-accrual loans than banks in other English-speaking countries, although this effect cannot be quantified. Net margins in Australia are the next highest, at 4.4 per cent in 1993.
  3. On this basis, margins in Australia appear high relative to countries with similar banking systems. Two factors, however, need to be taken into account in interpreting these figures. The first, which is discussed in the next section, concerns the relative significance of non-interest income in the different countries. The second concerns the relatively large role of bill acceptances in Australia.
  4. A high proportion of business credit in Australia is provided by banks through acceptance of bills, which are then sold in the market.[4] The income banks receive for this is treated as non-interest income (i.e. bill acceptance fees). As this form of finance substitutes for ‘low margin’ lending business conducted by banks in other countries, a case can be made for treating these fees as interest income (and adding the stock of bank accepted bills held outside banks to interest-earning assets). The line labelled ‘Australia adjusted’ on Chart 4 does this. The result is that the net interest margin for Australia moves closer to the levels in the UK and Canada.

(ii) Non-interest income

  1. Comparisons of interest margins also need to take into account differences in the extent to which banks rely on interest income and non-interest income, such as fees and charges. Banks which recoup a lower portion of operating costs through fees may need to achieve relatively higher net interest income to maintain a comparable level of profitability. Chart 5 shows the ratio of non-interest income to total assets for banks in the countries covered in the study.
  2. Most countries show a trend increase in the contribution of non-interest income to total income. This reflects the move towards user pays, or fee-for-service, pricing and the gradual diversification of business operations away from simple intermediation activities to trading in foreign exchange, securities and derivatives.
  3. The country that appears to have gone against this trend is New Zealand, where non-interest income has been falling relative to assets. This has resulted from the reduction of non-core activities, as part of the intense rationalisation that has characterised banks in New Zealand, and downward pressure on fees. Despite the falls in recent years, the ratio of non-interest income to assets in New Zealand remains high compared with other countries.
  4. Wide differences in the relative importance of non-interest income are evident among countries. Banks in the UK have the highest income from this source, followed by those in the US and New Zealand. Canadian banks are the lowest among the group, although the contribution of non-interest income has been gradually trending upwards. Australia lies around the middle. As noted earlier, fees on bank bills are an important source of income for Australian banks.[5] They are traditionally treated as non-interest income but, as noted, they can be thought of as a de facto form of interest income. Consistent with the earlier adjustment that added bill fees into net interest margins, non-interest income can be adjusted to exclude bill fees. The Australian data in Chart 5 are shown both including and excluding bill fees. When they are excluded, the ratio of non-interest income to total assets in 1993 falls from 1.8 to 1.3, the lowest of the group.
  5. The low reliance on non-interest income in the case of Australian banks in part reflects low fees and charges. It is very difficult to compare fees and charges in different countries, given that each bank has its own pricing structure. We have, however, attempted to discern some general patterns on fees and charges for transactions and household loans. Examples of typical fees and charges are shown in Tables 1 and 2.
  6. In Australia, for retail accounts with a chequing facility, the first seven to 15 transactions a month are typically free, after which withdrawal fees of A$0.30 to A$0.50 are applied; there are no fees on deposits. In New Zealand, fees are charged for both withdrawals and deposits (around NZ$0.15 to NZ$0.40), with the first five to eight transactions free. In Canada, a few banks offer a limited number of free transactions (for example, two per month or one for every C$200 balance); otherwise, charges are around C$0.50 to C$1.25 for withdrawals. In the UK, banks tend to charge for both deposits and withdrawals, with fees of between £0.32 and £0.77. In the US, some accounts have no transaction fees, although these accounts have high account keeping fees; on other accounts, standard fees on withdrawals seem to be between US$0.10 and US$0.50. Monthly account keeping fees are between A$1.50 to A$2.00 in Australia, a little higher than in Canada (a monthly charge of C$1), but lower than in the UK (between £1.75 and £2.50), the US (between US$2.50 and US$12) and New Zealand (NZ$2.00 to NZ$5.00).
  7. Banks often reduce or waive fees if the balance of the account is maintained above a specified minimum. In Australia, the typical minimum balance is A$300 to A$500 while in Canada it is around C$1,000, and in the US between US$500 and US$5,000. In New Zealand, account maintenance fees, but not transaction fees, are waived for account balances above NZ$1,000 to NZ$1,500.
  8. The upshot is that the thresholds of minimum balances and transaction frequency are most generous in Australia; on average, account holders with low balances and high transaction frequency pay lower fees in Australia.
  9. Fees on housing loans also seem to be lower in Australia. Banks typically charge between A$500 and A$600 establishment fees for a housing loan; this includes application and legal fees but not government charges such as stamp duties. In the US, a 1 per cent origination fee is typically applied, with additional documentation and appraisal fees of US$300 to US$400; for the average Australian housing loan of A$85,000, the US schedule of charges suggests fees of around US$1,200. In New Zealand an establishment fee of around 1 per cent is levied, with an upper limit of around NZ$1,200; if these fees were applied in Australia the charge on the average loan would be around A$850. In most countries there are cases where fees are waived on selected products or for special promotions.

(iii) Total income

  1. Differences in the relative importance of interest income and non-interest income can be overcome by looking at the ratio of total income (that is, net interest income and non-interest income) to total assets, known as the total income margin (Chart 6). The ratio of total income to assets for Australian banks has been in the middle of the group over the past two years. The US has the highest total income margin, mainly reflecting both high interest margins and high non-interest income. As noted earlier, one reason for the high ratio in the US is the relatively lower drag on bank income from non-accrual loans in that country.

(iv) Costs

  1. The cost efficiency of a bank can be measured by comparing operating expenses (i.e. total costs less the cost of funds, provisions for bad debts and interest forgone on non-accrual loans) to total assets. Chart 7 shows this measure of costs.
  2. The ratio of operating expenses to assets in Australia has been broadly steady, although rising a little in 1992 and 1993, despite banks' attempts to contain costs over this period. The sharp falling away in asset growth over these years ran ahead of banks' ability to cut back costs, in part because of the addition of restructuring costs associated with redundancies of staff. In 1993, the ratio was similar to that in the UK and New Zealand.
  3. Operating expenses in the US are higher than in other countries, kicking up in the early 1990s. This rise has been attributed to increased off-balance sheet activity and costs associated with industry consolidation. In New Zealand the ratio of expenses to assets has steadily fallen since the late 1980s. Banks have been through a more intense restructuring than in Australia, including sharp reductions in branch numbers and bank mergers. Despite this fall, the ratio of costs to assets is still about the same as in Australia.
  4. Canada has shown the lowest ratio throughout the period covered by this study. If the numbers are meaningful, they suggest a high degree of efficiency in what (like Australia) must be a difficult environment in which to achieve economies of scale in the provision of banking services (given the large size of the country and the small size of the population). The steady rise in the ratio is thought to reflect in part costs associated with expanding or establishing non-intermediation business operations, such as brokerage and foreign exchange, trust and mortgage loan operations, and investment management and corporate cash management services. These services do not necessarily add to the size of assets, so increases in them tend to raise the ratio of expenses (and non-interest income) to assets.

(v) Profitability

  1. The usual approach to assessing profitability is to measure recorded net profits as a ratio of assets or shareholders' funds. Bank profits, however, can vary sharply from year to year, because of provisions for bad debts, and payment of taxes. A clearer guide to underlying profitability is provided by abstracting from the effects of provisions and taxes. Charts 8 through 11 show recorded net profits and underlying profits as ratios of both assets and shareholders' funds.
  2. As can be seen, the measures based on profit after provisions and tax are particularly volatile. The degree of variability differs from country to country, in part because of differences in accounting and taxation regulations, but also because of differences in the bad debt experience. There is less variability once allowance is made for differences in taxation and loan loss provisions, and this measure provides a better guide to underlying profits.
  3. The profitability of Australian banks in the late 1980s was higher than in the US, but not out of line with New Zealand or Canada. It fell in the early 1990s but recovered a little in 1993. The ranking of countries differs according to whether profits are measured in relation to assets or to equity. Measured in relation to assets, the profitability of Australian banks is in the middle of the countries in the study, but relative to equity it is at the bottom end.


This heavy use of bills reflects the effects of past regulations, which encouraged banks to provide finance in ways which were not funded by deposits. [4]

Bill acceptances by the four Australian major banks total around $55 billion, equivalent in value to about 20 per cent of domestic bank assets. Bills are not a common financing instrument in the US, comprising about 1 per cent of the assets of banks. In Canada, bills are more common, although they still comprise less than 4 per cent of the assets of banks. In the UK, bill acceptances are off balance sheet, but the market is small, with the total value of acceptances less than 2 per cent of total bank assets. In New Zealand, banks' use of bills varies – in 1992 ANZ had bill acceptances equal to 13 per cent of assets, although this fell to 7 per cent in 1993. BNZ and Westpac NZ had bills equal to 3 per cent of assets in 1993. The National Bank of NZ does not specifically identify bills in their balance sheet. [5]