Big banks change ‘unfair’ SME loan contracts

AUSTRALIA’S ‘Big Four’ banks – ANZ, Commonwealth Bank, NAB and Westpac – have agreed to make specific changes, under pressure from business regulator ASIC, to unfair terms included in most small business loan contracts.

ASIC has worked with Australian Small Business and Family Enterprise Ombudsman (ASBFEO) Kate Carnell to identify the problems which have devastated many small and medium enterprises (SMEs) over many years. 

“This reflects nine months of hard work by ASIC working with the big four banks to meet the expectations of the Unfair Contract Term legislation,” Ms Carnell said. “The banks’ initial underdone response to the legislation serves as a reminder that banks were once again trying to ‘game’ the rules and this erodes trust. 

“There are now very positive signs that the big four banks are demonstrating industry leadership in embracing best practice.

“In meeting the law to cover individual loan contracts up to $1million the banks have agreed to extend the cover to small business total loan facilities up to $3 million which is a move in the right direction. Recent reviews have consistently raised that a small business loan facility of $5m is the correct benchmark. This remains a sticking point that will need to be addressed.”

Loan documents will no longer be able to contain ‘entire agreement clauses’ that absolve the bank from responsibility for conduct, statements or representations they make to borrowers outside the written contract.

The operation of the banks' indemnification clauses will be significantly limited. For example, the banks will now not be able to require their small business customers to cover losses, costs and expenses incurred due to the fraud, negligence or wilful misconduct of the bank, its employees or a receiver appointed by the bank.

Clauses which gave banks the power to call in a default for an unspecified negative change in the circumstances of the small business customer – known as ‘material adverse change event’ clauses – have been removed. Banks will now not have the power to terminate the loan for an unspecified negative change in the circumstances of the customer.

Banks have restricted their ability to vary contracts to specific circumstances, and where such a variation would cause a customer to want to exit the contract, the banks will provide a period of between 30 and 90 days for the consumer to do so. 

Ombudsman Carnell said the banks had all acted on ASIC and ASBFEO calls to change their practices although some have taken different approaches – and in some instances, gone further than the law requires – to address concerns about these clauses.

For example, NAB has taken an industry-leading position about the application of non-monetary default clauses, while the Commonwealth Bank will provide an industry-leading 90 calendar days notice for any changes to loan contracts that the small business customer does not wish to accept.

All four banks have limited the use of financial indicator covenants in small business contracts to certain classes of loans – for example, property development and specialised lending such as margin loans The banks have agreed that financial indicator covenants will not be applied to property investment loans.

The banks have also agreed that all customers who entered or renewed contracts from 12 November 2016 – when the protections for small businesses began – will have the benefit of the changes agreed with ASIC.

To ensure that the new clauses do not operate unfairly in practice, ASIC will monitor the individual banks’ actual use of these clauses to determine if they are in fact applied or relied on in an unfair way. ASIC will work with ASBFEO when assessing the results of this monitoring.

ASIC will publish more detailed information about the changes agreed with the big four banks so that other lenders to small business can consider whether changes to their contracts may be required.

“ASIC welcomes the significant improvements made by the banks to their small business lending agreements,” ASIC Deputy Chairman Peter Kell said. “The improvements have raised small business lending standards and provide important protections for small business customers.

“ASIC will be following up with other lenders to ensure that their small business contracts do not contain unfair terms, and we will continue to work with the ASBFEO on these issues.”

The four banks will shortly commence contacting all relevant small business customers who entered into or renewed a loan from 12 November 2016, about the changes to their loans.


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