Westpac NZ boss Simon Power: Financial hardship cases will rise if lockdown extended

The number of bank customers seeking hardship support is still low but could rise if Level 4 lockdown is extended, says Westpac NZ acting chief executive Simon Power.

Last year in Level 4, banks were flooded with tens of thousands of calls a day as people panicked about their financial situation.

Power said its customers appeared to be better prepared this time around.

“They seem to be much better set up for online business and online banking. We are getting about half the volume of enquiries into our contact centre than we did last year and the numbers seeking hardship are still quite small.

“Although we expect to see this pick up as more clarity emerges on how the lockdown is going to roll through.”

Power said that like last time, it was specific sectors of business that were feeling the pressure.

“We have heard from barbers, cafes and restaurant owners about how they are going to pay the bills when they can’t trade.”

More broadly, Westpac was also continuing to get calls from those in the construction sector, who were facing cashflow pressure due to supply chain problems.

“In general I would say small business seem much more well prepared this time and are thinking ahead to a potential prolonged lockdown in Auckland, and so we are getting lots of conversations coming through which I would describe as wait and see conversations.”

At this stage, said Power, he did not see the need to bring back the mortgage deferral scheme which gave home loan borrowers the ability to defer principal payments for up to six months.

“We haven’t seen a need for mortgage deferrals yet but it is a fast-changing situation and we are definitely reviewing the support options and keeping the communication with the government open about how we can help in that regard.”

Power said his message to customers concerned about their finances was to talk to the bank early.

“Make sure you contact us early. For business in particular, having short- and long-term plans is really important.”

He urged businesses to work out their cashflow projections and make sure reporting systems were in good order.

“Communicate – with your bank, with suppliers, with customers, accountants, landlords, make sure those conversations are going on as regularly as they possibly can.”

Asked what more the government could be doing to provide certainty to business, Power said: “I think the policy of go hard and go early is absolutely right, and it proved right last time.

“What I would say is the more certainty the government can give business about what the period ahead might look like the better, but I appreciate they are dealing with multiple variables at any one time. Certainty is critical for these players, particularly in the hospitality and tourism sectors.”

Westpac itself has opted to open only a restricted number of branches on Wednesdays for essential banking only – that includes getting eftpos cards, signing up for online banking and essential cash transactions.

Power said staff were wearing PPE and it had security to ensure strict social distancing measures. As well, it only had about 50 to 60 staff a day in its head office for specialised payment transactions.

“The vast majority of our 4500 staff are working from home.” He said the bank was also encouraging staff to get vaccinated by offering them a half day off if they did so.

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