It has been an incredibly tough 12 months for brokers affected by a pandemic, natural disasters and ongoing regulation. Australian Broker spoke to industry leaders to get their thoughts on 2020 and what lies ahead.
It's almost impossible to sum up 2020, but if there was one word to describe the past 12 months, it would be tumultuous.
The year started with bushfires and floods, which devastated many parts of Australia. Then, while affected residents and businesses were still trying to recover, COVID-19 hit, forcing widespread lockdowns and sending the economy into meltdown.
At the height of the pandemic in June, almost 500,000 home loans, or nearly one in 10 mortgages, as well as over 200,000 small business loans, were on a six-month deferral plan. By October, Australian Banking Association figures showed that almost half of home loan borrowers and 41% of SMEs had resumed payments.
But this year’s crisis has demonstrated the resilience, adaptability and innovation of brokers, lenders and aggregators. They have used technology to communicate with clients and colleagues, helped customers experiencing financial difficulty, and stayed abreast of market trends, government stimulus and regulations.
The property market didn’t collapse as some predicted. It has remained buoyant, with low interest rates, rising house prices, investors returning, and more businesses reporting they are back to pre-COVID levels.
COVID-19, bushfires and floods
“Australians are incredibly resilient – bushfires, droughts, famine and floods are natural disasters that we combat regularly,” says Renee Tocco, a director on the Commercial & Asset Finance Brokers Association of Australia (CAFBA) board and managing director of Loanezi.
But COVID-19 was a curveball with widespread impact, she says.
“It resulted in stringent isolation measures and enforced business and border closures, which will have lasting effects on our economic stability and our mental fortitude.”
Tocco says COVID-19 brought the board and CAFBA members closer in many positive ways.
“We increased our digital footprint with more online activity, online events and webinars and more active engagement with our members.
“We actively sought feedback from our members about industry issues, being their collective voice to lobby for required changes during these critical times.”
MFAA CEO Mike Felton says 2020 was a year like no other, beginning with fires and floods and then the pandemic, all while the MFAA was preparing for the introduction of the best interests duty and conflicted remuneration reforms.
“Our focus remained on moving at pace to support our customers and communities, including our broker and aggregator partners” Renee Blethyn, national partnerships manager, Suncorp
“While this year has thrown up almost constant adversity for brokers and the MFAA, I am proud to say our focus remained on finding new ways to further improve customer outcomes,” Felton says. “Our members rose to the challenge, assisting vulnerable customers during regulatory changes, natural disasters, and customer distress caused by a global pandemic and recession.
“Customer support was selflessly provided when brokers and their loved ones were dealing with their own vulnerabilities. This year, customers have needed brokers’ support more than ever before as they sought to access mortgage deferrals, refinance existing loans or otherwise navigate an extremely difficult period.”
Tocco says the grave and immediate mpact of COVID-19 resulted in an increased desire for security and reassessment of risk appetites, which encouraged CAFBA members to facilitate funding for their clients.
“Lending was encouraged through government-backed loans and other initiatives, but the exclusion of industry sectors, location-based considerations and major changes to credit matrixes resulted in decreased loan approvals,” Tocco says.
“Fortunately, some of these stringent measures have relaxed since the initial response, with more accessibility for our members to help their clients.”
Suncorp Bank national partnerships manager Renee Blethyn says the bushfires that ravaged Australia were deeply traumatic and dangerous for communities and emergency services.
“The impact was devasting, and Suncorp was there for our customers and communities every step of the way, from providing support to helping our customers rebuild their lives once it was safe to do so,” she says.
Suncorp’s insurance team deployed national resources, while the bank’s financial relief package was made available to affected customers.
Blethyn says COVID-19 created an incomprehensible level of uncertainty across Australia.
“Suncorp rallied to provide customers with the support they required ... this included providing financial relief assistance for business and personal customers as well as reducing interest rates for home loan and small business customers.
“Our focus remained on moving at pace to support our customers and communities, including our broker and aggregator partners.”
Suncorp removed all account-keeping fees for its personal and business transaction deposit customers in March.
Brokers, lenders and aggregators played an integral role in supporting customers during 2020, Blethyn says.
“They provided advice to help their clients navigate their own individual circumstances, while balancing their own changing circumstances, including reduced face-to-face client interactions.
“With more people spending time in their homes and many people adapting to make sure it suits their changing requirements, the role of home lending has never been so important.”
Suncorp launched a confidential health and wellbeing assistance program for FBAA members and family members, as well as the MFAA mental health program, Accidental Councillor.
Thinktank CEO Jonathan Street says that while the floods and bushfires were devastating, by far the greatest impact on financial services has been, and continues to be, COVID-19.
“Brokers have been significantly leant on by borrowers to provide support and solutions for everything from lost or reduced employment and income to emergency finance and restructuring, to being a facilitator of rapid business expansion alongside home renovations and upsizing,” he says.
Lenders had to grapple with “previously unseen levels of hardship”, the orderly supply of credit, adjustments to products and credit policy, and government stimulus packages, while aggregators helped ensure brokers and lenders worked effectively to best service borrowers’ needs.
“The coordination of effort and delivery between all parties has paved the way for the economic recovery we are now seeing and also for the way property markets have held up, which is testament to how effectively SMEs in general have been supported,” says Street.
At Prospa, co-founder and chief revenue officer Beau Bertoli says small businesses didn’t face a tougher period than 2020, but “we are seeing a faster and stronger bounce-back than anticipated”.
“We acted quickly as the pandemic hit and provided over 5,500 relief packages to customers at the peak,” he says. “This has now reduced by 70% as more SMEs get back on track.”
Businesses now have the confidence to make repayments, and Prospa’s data shows customers are adapting to the new normal.
“Our lending was up 265% quarter-on-quarter as SME sentiment and demand for credit improves,” Bertoli says.
NAB executive, commercial broker Chris Thomas says 2020 has been one of the most challenging years, but brokers have once again proved extremely resilient.
“The COVID pandemic has strengthened broker-customer relationships as borrowers and SMEs look to brokers as trusted advisers to help them navigate through the crisis,” Thomas says.
“The latest MFAA figures reveal 60.1% of mortgages are now being written through brokers. This is a clear indicator the third party channel will continue to be a viable and significant component of the future mortgage landscape.”
Loan deferrals are an important facet of NAB’s support for customers, with more than 110,000 home loans paused during COVID-19. Now, over 90% of customers are getting back on their feet or have said they will not need deferrals.
NAB supported SMEs and broker customers through its business loan deferral program and was also involved in the federal SME Loan Guarantee scheme.
Aaron Milburn, Pepper Money general manager mortgages and commercial, says the entire industry “can be justifiably proud of how they banded together” to support those most affected by bushfires, floods and a global pandemic.
“Whether people were refinancing, rebuilding or recovering, they were simply looking to understand their options and improve their situation,” he says. “Mortgage brokers worked overtime helping their customers and rose to the challenge admirably.”
During lockdown, Pepper’s activities shifted to ensuring families could stay in their own homes, “educating customers about the benefits of speaking to their lender early about their unique situation”, and to a focus on digitisation, such as online calculators and forms.
“Lenders and brokers pulled together to find ways to not only help customers through these challenging times but also support their financial wellbeing” John Mohnacheff, group sales manager, Liberty
“Brokers were busier than ever, and Pepper was proud to lead the industry in honouring all trail payments for customers affected by the pandemic,” says Milburn. “This move provided much-needed certainty and confidence about their own position, while helping others.”
At La Trobe Financial, senior vice president and chief lending officer Cory Bannister says the non-bank lender remained open for business throughout COVID-19, working with brokers to fulfil their customers’ needs and ensuring appropriate applicants received the funding they needed to meet their objectives.
“We quickly established a dedicated Hardship Assistance Team to help borrowers who were financially impacted by COVID-19,” he says.
This included options to defer loan repayments; waiving fees and charges where there was demonstrated hardship; and offering temporary interest-only periods to assist with cash flow and/or debt consolidation to make repayments more manageable.
“La Trobe Financial also donated $1m to the Epworth Hospital for additional ICU equipment to cope with the anticipated influx of COVID-19 admissions during the pandemic,” Bannister says.
“This doubled down on our $1m donation made in January of this year for bushfire relief.”
Finsure Group CEO John Kolenda says the broking industry has had to respond to the structural shift in consumer behaviour in 2020 brought about by the pandemic.
“As an industry we have adjusted well to the changing consumer expectations, such as video meetings rather than face-to-face contact,” he says. “We have shown how resilient and adaptable we can be to changing circumstances.”
Finsure had benefited from its merger with BNK Banking Corporation Limited two years ago, with the group recently announcing that its loan book had surpassed $50bn, and boasting a broker network that’s nearly 2,000 strong.
“We have achieved outstanding results against the backdrop of the massive challenges of the coronavirus pandemic, and we are on track to settle over $18bn for FY21.”
While Finsure staff worked from home temporarily, Kolenda says communication with the broker network was maintained through regular Zoom meetings, and training was provided via webinars.
Liberty group sales manager John Mohnacheff says the strength and resilience of brokers, lenders and aggregators in 2020 “has been nothing short of spectacular”.
“Across the board, lenders and brokers pulled together to find ways to not only help customers through these challenging times but also support their financial wellbeing,” he says.
“Liberty has demonstrated its true strength as a lender, as well as unwavering dedication to the financial wellbeing of our customers.”
COVID-19 caused a major industry shake-up, Mohnacheff says, but the effects were nowhere near as dire as first predicted.
“If anything, the economic stress has put a spotlight on how valued the work of a broker is, and how vital it is to have access to flexible lending options,” he says.
Brokers helped customers consolidate debt and refinance homes and investment properties, with nearly one in 10 Australians refinancing their existing mortgage in the last year. Several lenders also recognised the need for a more tailored approach – something Liberty pioneered, says Mohnacheff.
“[Brokers’ market share] will continue to grow further in 2021 and follow other international markets, which are over 80%” John Kolenda, CEO, Finsure Group
“Working on a case-by-case basis, we have been able to provide the support customers need to stay on top of their finances, while helping them to improve their long-term financial position.”
With every crisis comes opportunity, and that’s certainly the case with social distancing and lockdowns forcing the industry to use technology for communication and loan processing.
Advantedge general manager Adam Brown says social distancing accelerated the path to digital mortgages with the adoption of digital collection of ID, and tools such as DocuSign and Simpology’s LoanApp for customer and broker signatures.
“Most lenders and aggregators moved towards online education and digital PD days. These have seen huge attendance, and we expect the trend to continue,” Brown says.
In June, Advantedge hosted a webinar for brokers on its end-to-end digital functionality – part of the ‘Simpler for the Better’ proposition and the white label home loan company’s aim to “place digital capability and simplification” at the heart of everything it does.
Brown says COVID-19 forced brokers and lenders to widely adopt Zoom and Microsoft Teams video conferencing for communication, and it is here to stay.
“The key opportunities for brokers are continuing to service existing clients, and the ability to broaden their customer base. Brokers can now have clients interstate and communicate digitally.”
Mohnacheff says the pandemic led to the industry exploring exciting new ways of working, embracing a range of tech tools, such as video conferencing, to ensure the same standard of service was delivered regardless of location.
“Liberty BDMs have taken this one step further, creating personalised video messages for brokers to ensure they felt supported and encouraged throughout the year,” he says.
Liberty also introduced digital customer VOI options to help brokers keep up with increased demand. This was well received by the lender’s business partners, as it allowed them to support customers while working remotely.
Digital transformation can be a game changer for brokers, says Bertoli.
“With cloud-based software, video conferencing and changing expectations on client communication, brokers can run a national business from their own home office,” he says.
The pandemic also provided new opportunities for fintechs like Prospa.
“SMEs remain amongst the most dissatisfied customer segment with traditional bank offerings, yet a majority still use their bank account for business banking.”
Bertoli says that over the past few months more consumers and SMEs have started to embrace digital products and services.
“Lenders like Prospa have always provided a seamless customer experience and great service, and I think brokers will find this becoming more important than ever for their clients in 2021.”
At the MFAA, Felton says the pandemic drove the development of tech solutions for customers to solve problems caused by lockdowns, and created new ways for brokers to streamline their services.
“We helped our members navigate the rules on face-to-face contact and the lender requirement that brokers conduct interviews and ensure VOI in person,” he says.
“By seeking legal counsel and engaging the MFAA’s Lender Forum, regulators and associations, we helped remove obstacles to digital VOI and digital signatures. This has been an excellent – and overdue – innovation for brokers and customers.”
Tocco says CAFBA also welcomed the adoption of more technology, video conferencing and remote working as a positive shift for the industry.
“In support of the digital revolution, CAFBA will offer increased educational support for the future of technology and the associated cyber risks for our members,” she says.
Milburn says it’s fantastic to see the whole industry embracing e-docs and identity verification technology, changing interactions with customers for the better.
“It has fuelled an increased desire to better understand the customer journey, what causes effort in the relationship, and to ensure that the customer’s interests are protected every step of the way.”
The industry had also been challenged to strengthen customer protection through cybersecurity investment as cybercriminals use new methods to infi ltrate businesses and customer data, Milburn says.
La Trobe Financial was already well underway with its remote loan writing strategy before the lockdowns began in March, says Bannister.
“Over the past few months, we have focused our attention on refining the broker user experience to make it more streamlined from lodgement to settlement.”
He says La Trobe Financial has been successfully using IDyou and ZipID for its digital VOI, DocuSign for loan docs, and DigiDocs for mortgage docs for several years. It is also the first lender in Australia to access Valocity’s time-saving custom-built Commercial Property Valuation Platform.
Video conferencing has also meant that many businesses have now become borderless, Bannister says.
“We feel this is a great opportunity for brokers to expand their business reach by accessing clients in other states.”
A rapid increase in digital execution and settlement was a huge factor this year that produced better broker and borrower experiences, says Street. Added to this has been remote video interaction.
“We’ve probably all had more than enough of Zoom, Teams and WebEx for now, but there really has been no option but to embrace online engagement, and it’s here to stay.”
Best interests duty was the phrase on everyone’s lips in 2020 as brokers prepared for the introduction of BID, and many in the industry are welcoming the requirement that the consumer’s best interests be placed at the forefront of residential lending.
Felton says that from 1 January “customers will have the comfort of knowing that all brokers will operate under BID, providing yet another compelling reason to use a broker”.
“While BID is on balance a positive, given where this legislation could have ended following the Hayne royal commission, we [the MFAA] still focused heavily on ensuring we limited adverse impacts or unintended consequences for customers as legislation was passed and regulations were developed.”
“Brokers can now have clients interstate and communicate digitally” Adam Brown, general manager, Advantedge
Felton says the key to the successful implementation of BID is its postponement till 2021.
“We made the case not as an excuse to delay but to ensure the industry was not placed at risk by having to focus on new legislation when brokers’ focus needed to be on vulnerable customers.”
The MFAA also spent significant time working with the government on its broader legislative response to the royal commission, including remuneration changes; reference checking protocols; information sharing on misconduct; reporting and remediating misconduct; enforceable industry codes; and the establishment of a compensation scheme of last resort. It also made a submission to Treasury in response to the release of draft legislation on consumer credit reforms.
The proposed changes, Felton says, should improve efficiency, removing unnecessary barriers to the flow of credit to consumers and small businesses, while creating faster turnaround times.
In CAFBA’S view there is nothing in the BID changes that should affect commercial brokers, Tocco says, with the legislation replacing responsible lending with BID.
“CAFBA embraces this as a positive step for best customer outcomes,” she says.
“We welcome the removal of responsible lending obligations on consumer brokers, replacing them with BID, and appreciate that this only applies to consumer finance and the recognition that business finance is not part of this legislation.”
BID is simply an opportunity to refine existing practices, rather than overhaul the lending journey they take a customer on, says Milburn.
“Many brokers have taken the introduction of BID in their stride, educating themselves about the upcoming changes throughout the year and preparing themselves for any new processes they need to implement in 2021,” he says.
Bannister says La Trobe Financial expects the impact of BID on brokers to be neutral as the majority already operate to this standard. But the effect on the broker industry should be extremely positive.
“This may be the catalyst for 70%-plus market share in the short to medium term, as brokers can now say to their customers, ‘I must act in your best interests as I am obliged to by law’, and this is something the banks cannot say,” says Bannister.
Mohnacheff agrees that most brokers already adhere to BID, and the law simply formalises this.
“These changes provide a great opportunity to remind us of the importance of accurate paperwork,” he says. “When completing applications, be sure to take your time and remember to include all notes and documentation. Do it once and do it right.”
Liberty’s BDM team is working closely with brokers to prepare for BID and the related ban on conflicted remuneration. Mohnacheff urges brokers to review their existing record-keeping system and consider improvements where needed.
Finsure Group expects brokers to quickly adapt to BID, Kolenda says, with the change set to further increase their market share, which is at an all-time high.
“It will continue to grow further in 2021 and follow other international markets, which are over 80%,” he says.
To prepare for BID, Kolenda says Finsure is helping brokers comply by unlocking more features in its game-changing CRM, Infynity, which streamlines workflow and automates time-consuming tasks.
“Brokers are free to build their own processes into the system and choose which applications or services best suit their business, all under their own brand,” he says.
Street says that if the government is successful in amending responsible lending laws, he expects there will be some meaningful efficiency gains in the loan application process and speed of approvals, but banks and non-banks will continue to “lend responsibly”.
As for BID, he says it’s appropriate to support the interest of borrowers and place a level of accountability on finance intermediaries. But, if not applied efficiently and sensibly, it could turn into an “excessively onerous task on brokers and borrowers”.
“Getting the balance right without overburdening everyone involved is going to be essential,” says Street.
Blethyn says that in the midst of the pandemic brokers continued to adapt to changing regulations, such as BID.
“This initiative will result in a large degree of changes for brokers but will also build consumer trust and reinforce the broker’s role in acting in the best interest of their customers,” she says.
Brown says the whole premise of BID means product selection is no longer just about price, “it’s about ensuring brokers are choosing the right product for their customers”.
This is where white label products come in: he says customers have an increasing appetite for these and Advantedge has grown to take the majority of market share.
As for the winding back of responsible lending obligations, Bannister says lenders will continue to act prudently and appropriately, so the effect will be neutral in terms of credit availability and quality.
“We can expect a faster time to approval by taking a less granular approach to verification, importantly without compromising credit quality.”
The wide range of government assistance measures at federal and state levels certainly helped keep the economy going in 2020.
Tocco says CAFBA applauds the government’s financial incentives, with JobKeeper and the instant asset write-off having a profound impact on its members and SMEs.
“Our [former] president, David Gandolfo, is doing great work with the government to shape policy, encouraging investment while working with regulators and lenders to ensure that access to capital meets the government’s policies to invest and keep the economy moving,” she says.
Mohnacheff says the government’s economic response to the pandemic has been strong, with the SME Guarantee Scheme providing much-needed support for many businesses.
“As one of the first non-bank lenders to take part in the scheme, we have seen first-hand how vital this support has been to many local businesses.”
JobKeeper had also been a saving grace for many Australians, says Mohnacheff, with reports suggesting one in five people would have lost their jobs without it.
He also praised HomeBuilder as “far exceeding expectations”, with nearly 15,000 applicants looking to take advantage of the $25,000 grant.
Bertoli says it’s great to see the government prioritising support for SMEs through tax and investment incentives, such as the instant asset write-off, payroll tax relief and even the stimulus vouchers in NSW.
“We also welcomed the government’s decision to support fintech innovation by updating earlier plans to scrap research and development incentives and offering additional support. Innovation is essential for driving economic growth,” Bertoli says.
From Thinktank’s perspective, Street says JobKeeper has been the standout among federal and state initiatives that, combined, have allowed Australia to get through the health and economic crisis in much better shape “than we believe was likely or even possible”.
SME and specialist lending
Brokers were more active and open to helping people in specialist lending this year, which bodes well for 2021, Milburn says.
“If I were to invite 20 people to a barbecue, the odds are high that one or two would be considered a specialist customer,” he says. “A broker would want to help that person if it was their friend or family member. So we’ve found they’re far more open these days about spending time on specialist customers.”
Milburn says the way people earn income is changing, and these customers might need a near prime or specialist solution the next time they want a loan, and “brokers are the channel of choice for them to find it”.
Bannister points to three themes in the specialist lending space that have been accelerated by COVID-19: persistent tightening of bank acceptance criteria (which caused confusion and uncertainty for brokers and approval delays for consumers); consumers increasingly choosing brokers for their mortgage needs; and the rise in non-banks.
He says brokers’ use of non-banks rose from 2.2% in 2014 and peaked at 9.6% in 2018 before the banks’ aggressive home loan strategies pulled back market share.
“So, not only do we have the thrust of borrowers choosing brokers, we have brokers choosing NBFIs [non-bank financial institutions] for their tailored, empathetic solutions.We expect NBFIs will play one of the most important roles in the mortgage lending space over the next three years,” Bannister says.
Mohnacheff says there has been a notable increase in demand for specialist loans as more Australians face financial uncertainty or look for greater flexibility.
He says SMEs were among the hardest hit by the pandemic, and they needed the help of specialist lenders to meet their evolving needs.
“We are seeing a high number of brokers gravitate towards this space to find new ways to help SME customers flourish and prosper,” says Mohnacheff.
Street says Thinktank experienced a significant surge in brokers and SME borrowers seeking residential and commercial alt-doc solutions as the year progressed, while demand for SMSF finance continued its unbroken climb.
“The speed and convenience of non-conforming lending is definitely here to stay and continues to gain in popularity,” he says.
Banks have always found it difficult to assess SME credit risk efficiently, Bertoli says. Prospa had adjusted its risk appetite due to COVID, but its data-driven credit decision engine and deep insights into SMEs enabled it to continue lending.
“We have the flexibility and the technology to make smart lending decisions, looking at over 450 data points and with a response and funding possible in 24 hours,” Bertoli says. “Throughout COVID we’ve seen businesses in essential services, health, e-commerce and home renovations trading well and looking for funding.”
So that was the tumultuous year 2020. Expectations for the property market and continuing industry growth for brokers, lenders and aggregators in 2021 are high.
Felton is confident and looking even further ahead to 2022.
“We continued to prepare for the significant review of broker remuneration that is coming in 2022,” he says. “While this will be a serious review, I believe we are well placed as an industry to face this scrutiny.
“Customers will have the comfort of knowing that all brokers will operate under BID, providing yet another compelling reason to use a broker” Mike Felton, CEO, MFAA
“Everything the MFAA has done this year in advocating for strong and meaningful regulations and reforms will stand us in good stead as we face a full review by the Council of Financial Regulators and the ACCC to assess the impact of regulatory changes and the implications for consumer outcomes in 2022.”
Felton says the industry will need to demonstrate that its reforms are assisting in managing conflicts and have improved customer outcomes.
The industry is well progressed towards implementing the new rules on 1 January, including BID.
“While I am always proud of the hard work and professionalism of everyone in our industry and our association, the way brokers have overcome the challenges this year, and maintained their focus on customers, has been nothing short of inspirational. Our industry is in good hands,” says Felton.
Street says that while Thinktank shared others’ concerns in early March to late June, it has since become very confident about the present state of the finance industry and the future.
“The adaptability and flexibility demonstrated by all of the key players when it really mattered is something everyone should be immensely proud of,” he says.
Looking ahead, the continued use of intelligent digital services such as robotic automation, artificial intelligence and operational excellence means Thinktank’s relationship managers will have more time to add value for brokers and their customers by workshopping deals and providing education and training programs.
Milburn sees huge potential in 2021 to bring brokers and lenders closer together through greater integration via APIs (application programming interfaces).
Pepper Money is improving document management through technology such as e-docs, but there’s still a key role for optical character recognition (OCR) and AI.
“The game changer next year is not a single technology in isolation but the ability for brokers and lenders to construct a better experience for their customers, using all the technologies that are available – from AI to mobile experience, from API-based services to robotics and OCR,” says Milburn.
Bannister expects the pandemic to be non-linear and that economic reverberations will continue for at least the next two and a half years.
“We know that Australians are incredibly resilient; however, sometimes they do need help through difficult periods. This is where we anticipate a further increase in demand for non-bank loan funding.”
Bannister called the federal government’s temporary modification of the Corporations Act to allow the execution of documents electronically an industry game changer.
“We would hope that this becomes a permanent change, following a successful experience over the past six months, that allows the industry to continue to digitise and move with speed in relation to property transactions.”
Kolenda says, “Even if we get a vaccine, COVID has permanently changed the way we live and interact.”
But he believes brokers’ adaptability will hold them in good stead as they continue taking a larger share of the mortgage market.
With continued government support, Kolenda says the economy should see increased activity, with interest rates remaining low for at least the next three years.
“We expect property prices to stabilise and then increase over the coming years, with the responsible lending changes helping to support consumers,” he says.
Tocco is optimistic that, once border restrictions are eased, stability in the business sector will improve.
“Onwards and upwards 2021!” she says.