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Australia's Commonwealth to spin off wealth, mortgage arms

© AFP/File | Commonwealth's spin-off move comes with Australian banks under increasing scrutiny amid allegations of fraud

SYDNEY (AFP) - 

Commonwealth, Australia's biggest bank, announced plans Monday to spin off its wealth management and mortgage-broking arms as it looks to streamline operations and focus on core businesses.

The troubled lender -- the country's largest company -- is also considering selling its general insurance business.

Chief executive Matt Comyn said it would unlock value for shareholders.

"Today's announcement is another step in our stated priority to become a simpler, better bank and has followed a thorough review of the group's businesses and its optimal organisational structure to drive growth and shareholder value for all businesses," he said.

"It also responds to continuing shifts in the external environment and community expectations, and addresses the concerns regarding banks owning wealth management businesses."

The demerged business, CFS Group, will include Commonwealth's Colonial First State, Colonial First State Global Asset Management (CFSGAM), Count Financial, Financial Wisdom and Aussie Home Loans businesses.

Investment and retirement fund Colonial First State has over Aus$135 billion (US$100 billion) under administration while CFSGAM, a global investment management business, looks after Aus$207 billion of assets for clients worldwide.

The new entity will list on the Australian stock exchange some time next year.

"The wealth management and mortgage broking businesses are each high-quality franchises," said Comyn.

"With innovation and disruption in wealth management increasingly favouring specialist companies, they will benefit from independence and the capacity to focus on new growth options without the constraints of being part of a large banking group."

Other Australian banks have also been seeking to cut their exposure to the wealth management sector and redeploy their capital in the high-returning retail and commercial banking operations.

Comyn said that as part of a strategic review the bank was also exploring the potential sale of its CommInsure general insurance arms.

The move comes with Australian banks -- among the developed world's wealthiest -- under increasing scrutiny amid allegations of dodgy financial advice, life insurance and mortgage fraud, and rigging benchmark interest rates.

The government launched a royal commission in February to investigate misconduct in the sector.

Commonwealth has been under particular pressure, agreeing this month to pay an Aus$700 million fine -- the largest civil penalty in Australian corporate history -- to settle claims it breached anti-money laundering and counter-terrorism financing laws.

© 2018 AFP