The money machines we love to hate: profits soar at Canada's big banks

Canadians love to hate the country's biggest banks. But amid the seething over high fees and aggressive sales tactics, many forget that just about all of us own bank stocks, whether we think we do or not.

Virtually every Canadian has a stake in the profits at Canada's big banks

Two women use ATM banking machines in Toronto.
Canadians pay millions of dollars in bank fees every year, but if you own a mutual fund or contribute to CPP, you have a share in those profits. (David Donnelly/CBC)

It's a staggering sum of money. So huge it's hard to get your head around. The Royal Bank of Canada made nearly $11.5 billion in profit over the past year. That's profit. Royal is tops, but the other banks are no slouch in the profit department either.

Now, square that with all the seemingly petty fees, the annoying ATM charges, the aggressive sales tactics, and in some cases sales people breaking the law. Put together, you can see how the banks make such a mountain of money. You can also see why so many Canadians love to hate them.

But life, like banking, is more complex.

Most Canadians, even while we gripe about all those fees and all those profits, are investors and therefore owners of those same entities we love to hate.

Whether you know it or not …

If you have even the most simple investment portfolio, you almost assuredly own bank stocks.

"Every mutual fund in this country holds bank (stocks)," says Conor Bill, managing director of Mt. Auburn Capital. Just about every mutual fund invests in the banks. Banks make up nearly 17 per cent of the returns of any fund that tracks the TSX.

There's an old adage, that every time you complain about bank fees, you should buy bank stocks.

Bill says even if you have no such investments and only pay into the Canada Pension Plan, you're still a stakeholder. The banks, after all, are among the CPP's biggest public investments in Canada.

So, what's good for the banks is good for Canadians, Bill says. As a sector, financial services account for more than a million Canadian jobs. The Conference Board of Canada says financial services make up 6.8 per cent of Canadian GDP, and exports from the sector have more than doubled over the past decade, reaching $11.7 billion in 2015 — more than any other sector.

RBC 'too big to fail'

So, the Canadian economy depends on those banks churning out quarter after quarter of profits. To an extent, the global economy depends on Canadian banks, too. Earlier this month, RBC was added to a list of 30 of the world's most systemically important banks.

The designation, by the Swiss-based Financial Stability Board, essentially deems RBC too big to fail. It's considered big enough and important enough to have a major impact on the global financial system. The downside is that the bank is now held to a higher standard in terms of how much capital it's required to keep on hand.

But ethics watchdogs say here at home much more must be done to protect consumers.

"What's the good of making a bit of money through your shares," asks Duff Conacher from Democracy Watch, "[if] it's going to be taken out of your other pocket in gouging fees and interest rates. You don't end up ahead."

Consumers need protection

Democracy Watch wants the federal government to take a series of steps to further regulate the banking industry. It wants higher fines when rules are broken, more disclosure and a less cozy relationship between the banks and the main regulatory body, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada.

Conacher says the FCAC hasn't done unannounced audits since 2005. Even worse, the agency tipped off the banks about its last one, Conacher says.

That's why Democracy Watch is calling for the creation of a new organization — a Financial Consumer Organization that could properly represent consumers. Banks could be obligated to include membership information in any mass mailings or e-mails to their customers. Conacher says it wouldn't cost the banks or the government a penny.

"It solves every problem, for no cost," says Conacher.

The model was actually proposed originally in 1998 by the MacKay Task force and committees in both the Senate and the House of Commons. Conacher now has a petition with 25,000 signatures lobbying the federal government to create a Financial Consumer Organization in Canada.

Informed, empowered

"Whether you're a laissez-faire or an interventionist economist, your assumption is the consumer is informed and empowered," says Conacher. "Right now they're neither."

Membership in his proposed organization would cost $30 a year, and if even 1 per cent of Canadians joined, it would have a budget of $9 million.

"There would be staff lawyers and people would get free legal advice and help shopping around," he says.

Conacher and Bill approach the banks from wildly different perspectives, but in a way they both agree on a few key points. We are all owners of those banks and we do all share in their success. And they'd both like to see more Canadians proactive in how they approach the financial system.

So, next time you're staring at the ATM or your bank statement in horror at the fees, remember: you're getting a piece of that back.