Canada can be a leader in sustainable finance: BMO CEO
Bank of Montreal chief executive Darryl White sat down with BNN Bloomberg’s Amanda Lang Monday to discuss a wide range of topics, including household debt levels in Canada, credit quality, and the lender’s recent layoffs.
Below are some of the highlights from their conversation. Some answers have been edited for the sake of clarity and brevity.
On handcuffed Indigenous customers at Vancouver branch
“This is an unfortunate situation from start to finish. It should never, ever have happened. If somebody walks into one of our branches, it should never, ever be the case that they walk out in handcuffs. And that’s what happened here. And for that we apologize, I apologize, unequivocally, unreservedly that that happened. There were challenges with respect to validating the customers’ [identification]. But that doesn’t matter. That should have never ended up the way it ended up in this circumstance. And the police shouldn’t have been involved, and that’s on us. We take accountability for that.
You ask the question, how do we move on? We’ve had conversations, I’ve had many of them personally. We’re now up to hundreds of conversations with Indigenous leaders, with our customers, with our employees. I want to thank everyone for those conversations because they’ve been very valuable in terms of our thinking very deeply about the fact that while these are complex issues, they’re also very emotional issues. And they touch on a lot of issues with respect to our past that we’re thinking very deeply about. For us it’s about teaching, it’s about learning, it’s about investing in the conversation to move forward. We think that we’ll fundamentally be a lot better for this incident. But right now, it’s very raw and it shouldn’t have happened. People are angry and people are upset with us, and we understand that – and I agree with them. For that I apologize first and foremost.”
On BMO’s recent layoffs
“We’re in an uncertain world. We have lots of conversations about uncertainties in the economy, technology evolutions, globalization, localization. We have lots of changes. And underneath that, the best response from our perspective is a consistent strategy and consistent performance.
We’ve made decisions in the last six months when we’re looking at, I would say, a modest but not too profound of a deceleration in North American economies. We’ve looked at our responsibilities to shareholders and we’ve accelerated our performance. We’re taking market share in places we know we can win, where we’ve proven we can win. And at the same time, we know we have the least-competitive cost structure among our peer set. And that’s a fact. And we’re addressing that head on. And so the restructuring, we said we are going to reduce our workforce by five per cent, what that means is we’re going to have to eliminate some low-value work that gets done. You don’t just take out five per cent of the workforce and ask everybody else to do the same thing. So we are rewiring accountabilities and the work that gets done.”
On household debt
“We watch it very carefully. We watch it weekly, we study it, we consider our exposure to it. We happen to be the least exposed to the Canadian household relative to our peers in Canada. But I wouldn’t say that really is the most important point. I think the most important point to think about is when you look at household indebtedness, you also have to consider the other side of the household’s balance sheet. We’re also seeing the other side of the household’s balance sheet with liquid investments, illiquid investments, and the wealth effect, is very positive.
We’re not actually that concerned with household indebtedness from a pure risk perspective. We’re not seeing any trends. When you’re talking about its implication on the Canadian economy, I think by far the biggest influence on the performance of the Canadian economy is the U.S. economy.”
“We’ve been in China in wealth and in capital markets for decades. … For now, our position with respect to China is we like what we’ve got and we’re watching very closely. Our marginal investment dollar has tended to be to the United States in terms of our growth dollar because we can see a clearer return in the near-term.
When we look at our businesses in China, they’re great conduits and corridors to our businesses in North America, in capital markets and in wealth particularly. You’re not going to hear me say today we are going to double or triple our business in China. We’re going to continue to optimize what we’ve got in China – and it’s working well.”
On credit quality
“So far, I would say we have not seen systemic patterns across the board when you look across industries, when you look across geographies. But you start to see some isolated circumstances where there might be a larger credit that might be problematic over here and another one over [there]. Then we spend a lot of time trying to figure out whether here and [there] have any relationship to each other. So far the answer is: it doesn’t. So I think what you’ll see, generally, you’ll see some escalations that are not connected. When you start to see patterns that are completely connected either geographically or through sectors, then you can come to a conclusion that we’ve got a real turn in the credit books. But we’re not there.”
On sustainability efforts
“We’ve committed $400 billion to sustainable finance. We’re seeing that in some of the work that we’re doing – we’ve issued green bonds, we’ve done it on behalf of Maple Leaf Foods where we’ve issued a sustainability-linked loan. We’re doing all that work with our clients and through our wealth management businesses. And you go back to the conversations that I’m sure we’re going to have this week at the World Economic Forum – they’re all [going to be] around sustainability, and they’re [going to be] around economic inclusion. Those are at the core of the purpose of our organization, so we are completely aligned. And with respect to our investments and our support of the legacy fossil fuel client base in Canada and the U.S., for us it’s all about the transition. It’s all about supporting leaders who want to transition over time — and it does take time and it will take time — to a lower-carbon economy.”