NAB to cut 4,000 jobs in automation push

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NATIONAL Australia Bank Ltd. (NAB) announced plans to eliminate 4,000 jobs, or about 12% of its work force, joining the ranks of global lenders cutting costs and shedding staff in the face of advancing technology.

“As we simplify, we automate processes and things move to digital channels, we will need less people,” National Australia Chief Executive Officer Andrew Thorburn told reporters in Sydney on Thursday. “The reshaping of the work force is going to be significant.”

Rapid improvements in automation and a shift toward digital banking have upended the finance industry, with many traditional jobs disappearing. Sweden’s Nordea Bank AB last week announced 6,000 job cuts as it grapples with a digital transformation. Former Citigroup, Inc. Chief Executive Officer Vikram Pandit said in September that about 30% of banking jobs could vanish in the next five years.

The Melbourne-based bank’s shares fell after its earnings report showed expenses increased and it flagged higher costs related to the job cuts, which are among the biggest announced by an Australian lender in recent history.

While banks have been automating workflows for decades, the process has sped up recently as technology becomes cheaper, labor costs continue to grow and consumer expectations around digital banking increase, said Kate Howitt, portfolio manager for Fidelity International Ltd.’s Australian Opportunities Fund.

The financial services industry is “going through what manufacturing went through a couple of decades ago,” Howitt said. “The trend in employment numbers is clearly down for the foreseeable future.”

Thorburn is seeking to reduce expenses by more than A$1 billion ($770 million) over the next three years. At the same time, the bank will increase investment by A$1.5 billion, mostly on technology and process-automation designed to support its business lending division. It will also simplify its products and streamline internal systems.

Worker representatives criticized the job cuts.

“Once again, we are seeing a bank put technology and profits before people,” Julia Angrisano, national secretary of the Finance Sector Union of Australia, said in an e-mailed statement. “NAB along with the rest of the banking industry, has a long-term social responsibility to their workers. This is especially so in a period of intense digital disruption.”

National Australia reported profit that was broadly in line with analysts’ expectations, and said the head count reduction will result in a A$500 million to A$800 million charge in the first half of this fiscal year. Expenses will rise between 5% and 8% in the full year, the bank said.

The “result was solid, but the market will focus on the flagged cost guidance,” UBS Group AG analyst Jonathan Mott said in a note. “The market may not incorporate revenue upside until there are signs of delivery.”

National Australia shares fell as much as 3.3% in Sydney trading, the biggest intraday decline in almost six months. The stock was down 3% at 2:30 p.m. local time, while the S&P/ASX 200 Financial Index slid 0.9%.

The bank said it’s now targeting a cost-to-income ratio of toward 35% and seeking to achieve the top return on equity (ROE) of the nation’s major banks. While Australian lenders’ profitability has slipped in recent years, their ROE is still high by global standards.

National Australia will refocus its efforts on business banking — where it’s already Australia’s biggest lender — particularly on small and medium-sized firms.

“We need to think longer term,” Thorburn said. “We do see challenges in the environment but we also see opportunities.”

Australia & New Zealand Banking Group Ltd. said last week it expects the revenue outlook to become more constrained as increasing competition and regulation weigh on growth prospects.

“This is essentially an arms race,” said Nick Griffin, chief investment officer at Munro Partners, which invests in automation companies. “All the banks have gone through this period of going from onshore work force, to the offshore work force, and now they’re moving heavily into the digital work force.” — Bloomberg