Roundtable discussion: Women in Banking and Finance
The COVID-19 crisis is having a profound impact across economies, markets and societies. ANZ and KangaNews, in association with Women in Banking and Finance, hosted business and market leaders to talk through the response so far and the wide-reaching nature of future changes.
Craig What are the market issues you have been thinking about most over the months of the COVID-19 crisis, whether related to the nature of work or the way we do business?
GREENBERG The biggest challenge I have faced is ensuring the younger members of my team, who may not be privy to all the conversations taking place, are moving up the learning curve and getting enough exposure and experience.
From a debt capital markets perspective and, more specifically, transactions and execution, what was really challenging at first was day-to-day communications. For example, determining what required wet signatures and what was okay to sign electronically, and then properly inserting that electronic signature into a document when we did not have technical support standing by. It can be quite frustrating.
LYDFORD Some of the market issues we saw at the height of the crisis are continuing, at least to a certain extent. Issuers and investors did not know how long the crisis was going to last and for how long markets were going to be affected.
The commercial paper (CP) market in Australia came to a grinding halt. Given the short tenor of CP, it runs off the book faster and, as such, we had to source additional funds to replace this debt in other ways. The same thing happened in the US and Europe.
The uncertainty and rapidly evolving nature of the crisis led to some unintended consequences in the capital markets from decisions that were made to support the broader economy. By this I mean decisions like allowing individuals to access up to A$10,000 (US$7,158) of their superannuation if they are in distress.
This is a great initiative that I fully support. However, one of the consequences was that superannuation funds started liquidating assets. They were not investing in shorter-dated paper and everyone wanted to hold cash in reserve. This had a broader impact on the functioning of capital markets. Investors did not want to lock money away in either short- or longer-dated bonds. This is a lesson learned for the future.
The other thing, from a treasurer’s perspective, is that one is always reflecting on decisions being made to support the company’s liquidity. I need to think whether what I am doing is a two- or six-month decision, and to consider potential transactions from every angle – maturity profiles, liquidity needs and profitability.
There is substantial education undertaken to ensure management is on board with decisions and understands the rationale for recommendations. Having the confidence to make these decisions and act on them is critical.
JOHNSON The crisis is teaching us about short- and long-term decision-making, which we often only do in disaster situations. It reminds me of the recovery from the earthquake in Christchurch, where the long-term decisions were made very early on.
The current situation is not only testing our employers and leaders but it is also testing directors. We cannot just show up every month to board meetings. It is more important than ever to be across the topics and information that we may not have had as much access to in the past – not to mention there is no symmetry of information right now.
This event is hitting everyone globally. It challenges how we all think about the way we were and are working, but also the way roles and accountability are structured. We all have to pitch in.
The strength of the banking sector is helping us through. Financially we are very strong, which means we have more liquidity in the system. But we must be prudent in how we lend. From a responsible lending point of view, if people are not going to have a job in 12 months’ time we need to be very conscious of how we evaluate their needs. I echo Carol Lydford’s point about the short- and long-term balance of our decisions being more critical now than ever.
DRISCOLL We too are fully supportive of the superannuation access the federal government granted. However, in the context of our business and the impact on the superannuation industry – and when you look at it in combination with the coming recession, the rise in unemployment and reduced population growth – there will be consequences. Rainmaker expects the superannuation industry will no longer grow to the forecast A$10 trillion by 2040, but to A$7 trillion.
Superannuation funds in their role as investors have a significant impact on Australia’s economy. As a fund manager that is part of the overall value chain, I see this as a shared issue and challenge we will have to address as it will have a long-term effect.
The technology impact has been significant in the past six months – both our dependency on it and in the efficiencies it can create. Assessing our ability to leverage technology to continue to operate effectively has been a critical focus and an issue we explored with our peers. Equally, though, we recognise other organisations have not been able to embrace this as effectively and we are trying to figure out what it means for us as we engage with the marketplace.
Picking up on the workplace comments, a lot of elements of flexible work are very important. I would also add to this the importance of employee wellness and mental health. This is an issue that the crisis has brought to the fore given the challenges presented by working from home. It also tests management skills and leadership abilities.
CHOW It has been interesting hearing the perspective from debt capital markets and fund managers. As users of markets, our preoccupation is the structural shifts that are occurring on the demand and supply sides. There were some big geopolitical and social events before the pandemic hit, and now of course they are gathering momentum. The shifts were towards populism and protectionism, exemplified by Brexit and Donald Trump’s America.
On my side, in the supply world, we have always espoused diversification for managing risk and for good commercial sense. But we are now seeing some organisations’ behaviour, across all sectors, changing. Some are questioning whether they should be outsourcing to offshore, whether they should be importing and exporting, and whether we should be more self-reliant.
On the demand side, of course, consumer behaviour has changed. Customers want the most frictionless experience and it is not risk aversion that is compelling them but fear. We have been preoccupied with the permanence of these shifts.
EMMETT After the global financial crisis, with the dislocation that happened and some of the stimulus measures introduced, we saw a big increase in inequality. It was not so much the case in Australia, but certainly in the US and UK we saw this disparity of outcome – specifically around intergenerational inequality. Over time we have seen the repercussions of this with Brexit and the election of populist governments in the UK and US.
We are seeing the economic consequences play out now alongside the social consequences, and I think this is one of the more permanent changes that will need to be considered. This crisis has hit everyone but, while jobs have been hit and wages have declined across all industries, younger people and women have suffered much more.
Unless there are very determined efforts to address these issues around inequality, this problem will worsen over an extended period. The consequences are difficult to foresee, too. I think this will be a very big issue for policymakers going forward.
DALITZ We kicked off an initiative at Women in Banking and Finance (WiBF) to invite representatives of our member firms to speak on a range of topics – the first one being flexibility.
I should preface what I am about to say by pointing out that being forced to work from home is not necessarily flexibility. But we have seen some roles performed remotely for the first time. One of the discussion points was that, post COVID-19, it may be beneficial to work with regulators on a model flexibility policy that would determine what aspects of roles can be done remotely, how we deal with security of information, and any potential conflicts – perceived or otherwise – of working in markets roles remotely. This has been a hurdle in the past.
One of the biggest challenges of the crisis is, as a general theme, doing new things in a disparate working environment. Bringing completely new people on board is a focal point of adaptation efforts.
LYDFORD We have not been hiring many new recruits in the past few months, but where we have gone through this process interviews have taken place via video conference.
We have just launched the recruitment programme for the next graduate intake, but the process is protracted. We hope that by the time we are ready to do interviews we will have returned to some kind of normality and therefore are able to meet potential candidates in person.
Transferable skills are one of the most important factors to identify when recruiting, yet recruitment firms have often just ticked the boxes we specified. We now have a good opportunity to challenge this approach, which has often negatively affected women applying for a role that immediately speaks to them.
Craig Those tasked with deciding where to set the line to protect lives and the economy do not have an enviable role. What do you think of the measures taken?
EMMETT We’ve seen extraordinary stimulus around the world. This is a very well-defined crisis – it is not like the financial crisis or even the early 1990s recession where waves of problems hit policymakers and they had to troubleshoot along the way. In this instance, we know very clearly what the problem is.
We don’t know the shape of the virus curve going forward but we do know what the problem is, so policymakers have been swift and heavy-handed with stimulus, including in Australia. The International Monetary Fund estimates the fiscal stimulus, so far, is three times what we saw at the time of the financial crisis.
The authorities have taken the right approach in not separating the economic and health outcomes. The debate that has played out in the media suggests there is some trade-off between the two, but I don’t think this is quite right.
Even without mandated lockdowns, if there are high case numbers people will stay home. Sweden, where government-sanctioned shutdowns were quite limited, announced in early August that its second quarter GDP was lower by close to 9 per cent. It has taken a heavy economic toll as well as a heavy death toll.
Policymakers in Australia have done a good job. The question, though, is whether they will be able to continue. We have a fiscal cliff at the end of September when federal government support is due to drop to around 3 per cent of GDP from 13-15 per cent. There is really no way the private sector can lift activity to fill this gap.
It is not just the fourth quarter. The federal government must step up with some short- and long-term measures to help support the economy. This will have implications for markets. There will be much more emphasis on fiscal support and much less on the monetary side going forward.
Craig Financial markets appear to be ploughing on despite the spike in COVID-19 cases in Victoria and the problematic situation globally. Is it the case now that the risks are known and the economic support in place so markets can largely carry on with business as usual?
EMMETT Markets have been buoyed by the level of stimulus – you can see it in the stock market in particular. In Australia, the RBA [Reserve Bank of Australia]’s intention has clearly been to keep the short end of the curve lower and a cash-rate target of 25 basis points. This has helped smooth and support markets but it is something policymakers must keep a close eye on.
We don’t know how things like the end of the mortgage-deferral programme and the insolvency-forgiveness period are going to play out in the economy. Not to mention how these potential problems influence markets and banking, or whether there are other market dislocations.
BROWN The stock market is continuing to perform well considering the impact of COVID-19. But there is a big question around how the stimulus will taper off and what the impact will be. Some industries will be more affected than others. There are very different stories among those we support, which include nondiscretionary and discretionary retail, tourism and the airline industry. It is going to be a long path back to normality.
There will also be opportunities, though. Some businesses are performing very well and are setting themselves up to grow.
LYDFORD The stimulus packages have been very well received and are assisting in market recovery. But there will be a long-term impact on social welfare and mental health in Australia, which, even after the immediate recovery of the markets and economy, will continue to be a concern. There will be lasting effects on our society even once COVID-19 is under control.
It is not just COVID-19, though – we have had the bushfires and floods. Many Australians are without work, have lost friends and loved ones or are simply tired. This is where the mental-health piece comes into play. There will need to be strong government support for ongoing health issues and, as there already is, to agencies that support the fallout from these significant events.
CHOW One thing I have been thinking a lot about is that the two actors in this crisis have been governments and regulators. I am very intrigued to hear whether a lasting role for these will continue be welcomed in the banking sector and debt capital markets.
JOHNSON From an Australian Sustainable Finance Initiative (ASFI) perspective, it is significant that, globally, roadmaps that are supporting the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) have been government-led but industry-backed. Sometimes strong roadmaps upfront are followed by a struggle to implement because they did not bring the industry along.
At ASFI, we have been doing the reverse for the past 18 months. The industry came together and funded ASFI, which has received government support via the regulators that observe the steering committee. We have been mindful to balance what they regulate with what we think is a good systemic roadmap to get a long-term benefit for environmental and social outcomes.
One question I have been reflecting on as a challenge for us as a sector is what skills will be required in future. This is not only for our current workforce but the pipeline of future employees, and what role we will have to play as a sector to get the skills we require. One of the issues in delivering services is going to be having the right employees.
Thinking about lessons from the financial crisis, studies from the US and Europe show that how we skill people up will have a huge impact – and this will be one of the first of many shocks to the economic welfare of the system.
The big difference with the financial crisis period, of course, is that it is often said the financial sector caused the crisis – albeit not in Australia. This time we are being called on as one of the actors to assist fixing something that was not of our own making. Across our sector, everyone has stepped up and has been adaptable – and we should be very proud of this.
DALITZ We have seen this across our membership. There is a degree of fatigue due to the quantum of additional work that has been created to manage everything – from hardship cases to reworking deals to transformation projects.
This environment of everyone working from home has largely seen little change in output and performance. But it has presented more challenges when it comes to change or significant projects. Strategic initiatives may also be stalled as companies have not had the ability to lead change programmes as effectively as they might wish. It is one thing to perform call-centre duties and quite another to transform business systems and undergo a full reorganisation.
Just as organisations are operating at different speeds, so too there is some differentiation around the pace at which people have been operating and have been able to redirect resources within organisations.
TONKIN There are positive aspects. From ANZ’s perspective, a lot of relationships are being solidified and taken to a higher level. ANZ is a relationship bank and we have been working closely with our clients in many respects. It means we have had a strong alignment between looking after employees, working with customers, dealing with stakeholders and engaging with regulators on a more personal level.
With everyone working from home and using technology, all levels of the organisation have been a lot more accessible. We have been running a lot of information webinars for customers on all aspects of the economy, with hundreds of people joining in. They have dialled in from all levels, too – from board directors to the front line.
COVID-19 still has some way to run from a health perspective. From a financial-system perspective, it arguably has years to run. It will be important for investors, corporates and the financial system to work with government on the recovery.
It is affecting each company differently. Some of our customers are performing very well and others less so. The struggling entities are going to be profoundly affected and we see this even within the same industry, such as the resources sector with the oil and gas industry relative to iron ore.
One of the things that preoccupies my mind as this crisis goes on is how perspective has changed. On the initial impact, everyone was rushing to assess the situation while also thinking it was going to be quite short-term – so they took an all-hands-on-deck approach. As time has gone on, fatigue has set in and attitudes have changed. For example, those who were initially relaxed about working from home have become more anxious to return to the office.
Similarly, those with more mature careers found working from home more easily achievable, because of this maturity and experience. But, as has been said earlier, the impact on young people is noticeable. Graduates and those a year into full-time work are finding it a lot harder to learn because they are not surrounded by experience. They cannot just swivel their chair around to ask for help.
Within organisations, particularly ANZ, there is quite a big focus on programmes for employees. We are compiling a new resilience programme for our leadership to help them deal with the change.
It is interesting that it all starts with the individual. You must be in a good head space before you can help others. We need to start thinking about the long term and what it means for strategy around diversification, breadth of work and the associated impacts of ways in which the world is going to change.
DRISCOLL Resilience is an attribute and a skillset that needs to be developed. Part of this, and why I mentioned the focus on mental health and wellness earlier, is because the working-from-home environment has many challenges to performing work and home duties.
One of the things Alliance Bernstein has done is look far beyond the support we have always provided to our employees. We have made resources available free, such as access to a psychologist or health and fitness opportunities. This is to encourage and create a more balanced perspective, with an aim to build resilience as a result.
This also goes back to the point about management and leadership, and the context of trying to bring people along on the journey when they do not have the day-to-day support to acclimatise to a new organisation or role.
It is an interesting challenge and it has a lot to do with the diversity narrative in the context of the characteristics women traditionally have and can bring through their leadership styles. We, as an organisation and a society, can take many lessons from this crisis.
LYDFORD We are spending time working on resilience, and health and wellbeing programmes, particularly around leading teams remotely and being able to look after them. One of the biggest challenges, and a huge learning curve for the organisation, is bringing inclusion to on-screen meetings.
Going back to the impact on younger people, there are many young and bright individuals coming through the workforce and we have stepped into their world of technology. Managing how they become our future leaders as we use technology even more than we were before will be interesting.
Craig Is the general view that over time things will go back to how they were, or will COVID-19 permanently alter elements of how we work and live?
LYDFORD I think the importance of flexibility will remain. A good example of this is the global roadshow we were organising along with our teams in the US, the UK and the Netherlands as COVID-19 hit. As a result of the pandemic, we decided to bring forward the European bond deal we had been planning to launch after this roadshow. The outcome was really pleasing. More investors than ever participated, without the need for any in-person meetings, and it was one of the most successful transactions in the market at the time.
I think in large part the way of the future depends on the sophistication of some of our investors. Some prefer to meet face-to-face, some are comfortable with web roadshows, still others are content to tick the box on the financials. My view is we will eventually creep back to how we were, for some investors anyway. It is the nature of people to want to connect and it is just a matter of time.
GREENBERG The market has been incredibly adaptive around roadshows and my view is that the current environment will have implications for the future. One thing of note has been the willingness of investors to engage in online forums, even with new issuers.
Previously, an issuer might have 10 or 12 investors dial in for half- or full-year results, and some of those would do so predominantly out of curiosity. This has now shifted. We are seeing 40-plus investors dial into update calls and they are actively participating and asking questions. The reception from issuers and investors has been very positive and the uptake is a pleasant surprise. This type of communication is certainly more efficient online, but it is true that there is still a preference for traditional one-on-one meetings.
We are a considerable way from any of these being permanent, structural change. One just has to look around the world to see this. For the first time in my career, I have witnessed companies not release forecast earnings and, in many cases, postpone dividend payments until further notice.
The uncertainty and ambiguity about the future has been unlike any other time I have known. With previous volatility, there has always been a safety net – whether it be companies, banks or governments. But to whom do we turn now?
Markets seized up at the start of the crisis and it was not until central banks around the world intervened that things started flowing again. Our concern now is what is going to happen when we no longer have central-bank support – the scary part is that central banks cannot afford to pour money into the economy indefinitely.
Tying it back to my initial concern about experience and opportunities for the younger generation, companies are closing their doors and many will not reopen. It will be interesting to see what comes to replace those that are not moving forward. It is going to be a challenging environment, especially for new companies and for private-sector evolution in general.
Until there is a vaccine or an acceptance of re-opening the economy and living under the current situation, opportunities seem like they will remain limited for the younger, less experienced generation.
EMMETT I think we have seen an acceleration of the trend toward flexible working. As Jen Dalitz pointed out, we are seeing a great number of roles that people said could not be performed at home, such as trading, being done from home.
It will open a lot of roles for more flexible options permanently. We will see a higher number of people working from home, for a great proportion of the time. However, while there may not be as much demand for commercial office space in the city, I think eventually workers will return to the office for at least part of the week. I don’t think we can expect the majority of people to work from home for the bulk, or all, of the time.
Research shows that while the initial productivity gains from working from home were surprisingly positive, over time some of these get eroded. We touched on this before, but training staff or inexperienced people not having an experienced hand next to them is quite difficult to overcome. Projects and collaboration tend to take a bit longer.
There is less information sharing as well, without water cooler or hallway chat. All these things suggest that, over time, we will eventually move back to the office – although some of the changes will be longer-lasting.
Lydford Does this apply to men and women equally?
DALITZ The statistics show overwhelmingly that if it is a male and female, two-income household the shift back to the office is being led by men. There has been an increase in unpaid work for both genders, according to a study by the University of Melbourne, but disproportionally for women over men – and particularly in childcare responsibilities.
Craig Is a vaccine the only way things can return to normal?
TONKIN I was on a plane recently and found it quite confronting to arrive at a completely empty Sydney Airport. All the passengers had masks and social-distancing requirements were respected while queueing – in fact, compared with normal, people were relatively polite.
I hope we can keep some of these good habits. Regardless of whether or not a vaccine is developed, I think some changes will remain. This crisis will have a profound impact on the way people interact.
DALITZ Vaccine or not, this crisis has advanced the gender-balance conversation by at least a decade. Fathers have been telling me that, for the first time in their careers, they have been taking their children to and from school and they have seen their children more in the past three months than they have in the previous 10 years.
Where companies have policies that either parent can take time off but the father has been reluctant to do so, this will radically shift. Some changes for the better are here to stay.
CHOW I could not agree more. The whole theme of diversity and inclusion that brought us together has a significant barrier caused by inequity. It feels like there is a social movement emerging from the citizens of the world albeit, sadly, from crisis. This includes the death of George Floyd, the Lebanon explosion and the possibility of regime change from the people in Iran. It is happening now in every continent.
This was all bubbling away beneath the surface but, because of the pandemic, it has now erupted. People have had enough and I hope there is now enough of a ‘coalition of the willing’ to create the positive change we have all been talking about.
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