'I am sorry': CBA boss apologises for ATM scandal

Commonwealth Bank chief Ian Narev has issued a frank apology over the money laundering compliance scandal that destroyed billions in shareholder value, and put the lender under unprecedented scrutiny.

In a speech that also called for action to address stagnant wage growth, and highlighted the dividend was not guaranteed, Mr Narev said he was accountable for the alleged breaches by CBA.

Mr Narev, who is stepping down by the end of this financial year, said on Friday the bank was focused on "putting things right" after failing to meet the appropriate standards.

"We let down our stakeholders and, regardless of the ins and outs of the legal claim, I am sorry for that as the chief executive," Mr Narev said at a Morningstar investor conference in Sydney.

"I take accountability for it and can assure you that we are taking it extremely seriously."

It is the most direct apology yet from Mr Narev over the scandal, which surfaced in early August when Austrac launched legal action alleging CBA breached Australia's anti-money laundering laws more than 53,000 times.

Austrac, the financial intelligence regulator, claims CBA failed to monitor or report large cash transactions, including millions of dollars being laundered by drug smugglers.

Amid concern about weak household spending after a recent slump in retail sales, Mr Narev also called on government to consider policies that may re-ignite wage growth. Mr Narev said the key issue policymakers should be looking at is how to make households feel better off.

"The number-one metric we need to look at in the economy beyond unemployment is wage growth, which over recent times, and this has been a global phenomenon, has been relatively weak," he said.

"What we really need to see in terms of a national policy debate is policy settings that give businesses a sense of stability predictability to invest, create jobs and create demand for labour which in turn ...makes households feel better off."

The Austrac allegations have cast a major cloud over CBA since they came to light in August, with the bank's market capitalisation dropping by more than $10 billion over this period.

CBA announced Mr Narev's retirement in August in response to "speculation" triggered by the allegations, and the prudential regulator has also commenced a detailed inquiry into the country's biggest bank's culture and governance.

Mr Narev acknowledged there had recently been "heightened uncertainty" towards the bank in financial markets, and this was also affected by him stepping down.

"We have got uncertainty with leadership succession, although I can give you a guarantee that the next chief executive of the Commonwealth Bank will be better than the current one," he said.

"That does create uncertainty over a period of time. And, undoubtedly, when you have got layers of uncertainty on each other that weighs on the stock."

Analysts predict CBA may face a fine of up to $2.5 billion over the Austrac scandal, but the size of any penalty remains highly uncertain, which is likely to affect board decisions on how it manages its capital.

CBA last month said it would sell its life insurance business for $3.8 billion, but analysts believe the board will be cautious about returning any excess capital to shareholders while the possibility of a hefty fine is hanging over the bank.

Mr Narev on Friday reminded shareholders the dividend was not a sure thing, though the board would aim to keep it predictable as much as possible.

"The strength of the bank will always be our priority, and that means that the dividend is not an annuity," he said.

"But what I can tell you is this: We will do our utmost to make sure it is as predictable as it possibly can be for all of you, because we understand the importance of the dividend to all of you."

Mr Narev said his priority during the remainder of his time as CBA chief was to restore the trust that had been damaged.

"At the heart of the relationship of the Commonwealth Bank and all its stakeholders lies trust - we can never take that for granted and we have a lot of work that we have to do - and that we are going to do," Mr Narev said.

with AAP

This story 'I am sorry': CBA boss apologises for ATM scandal first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.