Monday, November 25, 2002

Any complaints?

I am not a real blogger. I talk on the radio Monday mornings and (these days) take forever to blog what I have just said. When I started bogging I would go straight into the studio next door to Geraldine's and blog what I had meant to say within minutes of not quite saying it. Recently I have waited up to a week.

So here goes, to catch up.

LAST Monday 18 November I spoke with Geraldine about what happens when you try to complain.

When you see a fire and you report it, you expect the Fire Brigade to investigate. But that wouldn't be a wise expectation when you report something to the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority, the Australian Securities and
Investments Commission
, the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission, or the Australian Tax Office.

The Palmer Report into APRA's conduct in the lead up to the collapse of HIH Insurance discloses an amazing mindset. "A company could not be considered to be in breach of the solvency standard until it had reported a breach in its returns." When HIH did fall below minimum solvency standards "no action was taken but to hope that it traded out of it." When in July 2000 APRA received an anonymous document that was a "road map" to HIH's troubles it warned its likely author that he was leaving himself open to legal action. HIH supervisors concluded that the comments should be treated with caution because they came from a disgruntled employee. Palmer appears to have been astounded.

APRA's attitude was partly cultural, the "London tea and bickies" approach in the words of APRA Board member Alan Cameron, and partly caused by very limited resources, according to Palmer. Only four people were supervising HIH and more than one-hundred other similar institutions, the man initially given hands-on responsibility for HIH was 24-years old with no general insurance experience.

So what?

Firstly APRA and its predecessor the Insurance and Superannuation Commission liked to give the impression that they were keeping our money safe. Some of us may have taken out insurance or extra supervision because we believed that they did.

And secondly APRA is not alone in, shall we say, a "selective" approach to complaints...

I quoted from annual reports that reveal that ASIC routinely investigates 2 to 3 per cent of the seven to eight thousand complaints it receives each year. It makes some contact with the complained about party in fifty per cent of the cases, and forty per cent of the complaints are merely "analysed, assessed and recorded."

Its lack of checking extends to prospectuses. Last year it inspected only 237 of the 913 prospectuses lodged with it. Not that the prospectuses lodged with it are squeaky clean. It had to issue stop orders for 67 of the 237 prospectuses it did examine.

The ACCC received 51,000 complaints last year. It investigated just 4,000 of them.

The copper isn't routinely on the beat.

The Tax Office copper no longer reveals in its annual reports the number of returns it selects for auditing.

The last time it did, in 1996 the number was -- 5,121.

Which isn't very many, in a nation the size of Australia.

Not that our tax returns are squeaky clean. No matter how many returns the Tax Office audits it seems the proportion that need correcting is about 70 per cent.

The last Budget gave the Tax Office an extra one billion dollars to start auditing again and the accounting profession is having kittens. They had grown so used to getting away with mistakes they'd forgotten that the act has grown just about too complex to apply, or so argues tax lawyer Michael Inglis in this and other brilliant pieces.

The Tax Office and its brethren bodies defend what they are doing by talking about "meta risk management". It is quite an interesting idea, but a bit like fighting the Taliban with technology and no troops or intelligence gatherers on the ground. And we know where that leads.