Australia regulator blocks $3.2 billion ANZ-Suncorp bank deal

By Byron Kaye and Himanshi Akhand

(Reuters) -Australia’s competition regulator on Friday blocked a A$4.9 billion ($3.2 billion) buyout planned by No.4 bank ANZ Group of insurer Suncorp’s banking arm, setting the scene for a drawn-out legal challenge.

The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) said it was concerned a tie-up between the financial firms would worsen competition and “further entrench an oligopoly market structure” where four lenders including ANZ have three quarters of the country’s A$2 trillion in home loans.

“The proposed acquisition increases the likelihood that the major banks adopt a ‘live and let live’ approach to each other … instead of competing strongly on price, innovation and the quality of their service,” ACCC Deputy Chair Mick Keogh said in a statement on Friday.

“A substantial lessening of competition in home loans would have major flow-on impacts to Australians with a mortgage,” he added.

The decision leaves Melbourne-based ANZ, which has trailed behind its larger rivals in the cutthroat mortgage market for years, without a straightforward path to growing its loan book at a time when banks are struggling to attract new borrowers after 400 basis points of interest rate hikes in a year.

It also leaves Suncorp, one of Australia’s biggest general insurers, without an avenue for simplification as extreme weather events put pressure on its core business.

The financial firms said in separate statements that they were disappointed and disagreed with the decision. The companies said they would seek a review of the determination at the Australian Competition Tribunal, an offshoot of the federal court which oversees takeover rulings.

ANZ shares rose 1% and Suncorp shares dipped 0.6% in morning trading, against a flat overall market, as analysts noted that the regulator had previously flagged its concerns and the deal had become less attractive in a softening property market.

“If the transaction is abandoned, ANZ avoids a transaction that is increasingly unpopular with investors and gains a material capital surplus,” Citi analysts said in a client note.

Taking the deal to the competition tribunal would delay its completion to mid-2024, if the tribunal approved it, from the late 2023 timeline the companies gave when they announced it a year ago.

However, the most recent major ACCC-rejected deal to go to the tribunal, a telecommunications network-sharing arrangement between heavyweights Telstra and TPG Telcom, was blocked again there.

The ANZ-Suncorp deal was one of the biggest deals for the ACCC since chair Gina Cass-Gottlieb started in March 2022, but she recused herself from the matter because of potential conflicts with her previous work as a private competition lawyer.

The ANZ-Suncorp deal also needs sign-off from Treasurer Jim Chalmers who declined to comment.

($1 = 1.5249 Australian dollars)

(Reporting by Byron Kaye in Sydney and Himanshi Akhand in Bengaluru; Editing by Stephen Coates)