I am very pleased to participate in this debate. It might seem very technical, but it is extremely important, especially for consumers and all of our fellow citizens. We do business with financial institutions every day, especially with banks and near banks. Although these are private enterprises, they are for all intents and purposes public services.
Bill C-37 introduces certain changes to the banking system while ensuring its stability. The government is required to undertake consultations every five years to update legislation governing financial institutions. October 24 was the deadline for consultations on legislation governing financial institutions, but the government extended the application of these laws to next April 24 to enable Parliament to study the issue more thoroughly.
Bill C-37 follows the June 2006 publication of a document entitled 2006 Financial Institutions Legislation Review: Proposals for an Effective and Efficient Financial Services Framework, as well as Advantage Canada, which was recently published by the government during the economic and fiscal update. A lot of work went into drafting this legislation. Bill C-37 would implement new mechanisms to make Canada's financial system more efficient. This bill is aimed at achieving three key objectives. As I said earlier in my question to the minister, those objectives are to enhance the interests of consumers, increase legislative and regulatory efficiency, and adapt the regulatory framework to new developments. This is a sector that has seen a lot of technological, financial and service development over the past few decades.
On the whole, we are quite happy with this bill, because it meets a real need. Obviously, a number of things will need to be discussed in committee, and I will talk about those in my speech. We will therefore vote in favour of Bill C-37 at second reading, but we reserve the right to improve the bill, with the help of the other parties in this House, so that it better meets its objectives, which the Minister of Finance outlined earlier.
I spoke earlier of three key objectives. The first is to enhance the interests of consumers. This includes three main elements. The first consists in improving the system of disclosing information to consumers; the second consists in amending the regulatory framework to provide for the introduction of electronic cheque imaging; the third consists in reducing the hold period on cheques.
The first element of this first objective consists in improving the disclosure regime. As the minister has said, the intent is to help consumers make informed decisions about investment vehicles by providing them with more specific, more extensive, more easily accessible information. The government is therefore proposing higher standards for disclosure of charges and penalties that apply to various accounts and investment vehicles. It will also require institutions to clearly disclose this information on the Internet. Today, many Canadians use the Internet for their financial and banking transactions, paying bills and looking for information. Of course, not every household has Internet access yet, so this information will be available not only online, but also in all branches. That way, anyone who needs information will have access to it.
The second element of this first key objective of enhancing the interests of consumers is amending the regulatory framework to provide for the introduction of electronic cheque imaging.
Bill C-37 will establish a legislative framework for electronic imaging in order to facilitate cheque processing by financial institutions and to reduce the hold period on cheques. I believe that the technological developments to which I referred earlier, particularly in the area of financial management, make it possible to use this new tool.
The third element in the first key objective of enhancing the interests of consumers also results in shorter hold periods by financial institutions on cheques.
As we know, following the publication of the 2006 Financial Institutions Legislation Review, the government undertook to reduce hold periods on cheques in order to make life easier for everyone, particularly SMEs and the public.
A hold on a cheque makes our life very difficult. When we receive a cheque, we deposit it and have bills to pay or debt payments to make. We realize that our money or our assets are on hold. They are frozen, in today's language, by the bank for 10 days, even in the case of cheques from major companies or the government. The solvency of the issuer of the cheque is not in question. To manage risk and security, a hold is placed on these cheques for 10 days.
With Bill C-37, the Superintendent will have the authority to establish the hold period on cheques. In the white paper, it is recommended that the hold period be reduced to a maximum of seven days, and then five days once electronic cheque imaging, about which I spoke earlier, is implemented.
Cheque holds not only affect consumers who need to access funds to pay their bills and make debt payments or simply to do their everyday shopping, they also affect small and medium-sized businesses that do not always have a large cash flow margin. They need that cash flow to pay their suppliers and employees and to operate their businesses from day to day. They often do this out of the funds they deposit into their bank accounts from day to day.
I think that this is something that everyone will be pleased to see. As I said earlier, the 10-day maximum hold period for funds deposited is a source of irritation to virtually everyone.
As well, the government would like to ensure that the efficiencies that will be gained through the Canada Payments Association initiative to change the payments system to facilitate electronic cheque imaging will be shared by all users of the payments system, including consumers.
We certainly cannot object to this first objective and the corresponding elements, but in our view it does not go far enough.
I am sure that some of my colleagues in all parties in this House regularly receive letters from consumers these days, as I do, saying that they have been victimized by the practices of banking institutions, and in particular the big banks, and who feel that they simply have no recourse. Starting a legal battle against a financial institution that is a billionaire several times over is something that most of our fellow citizens cannot do. We need to find solutions for this problem so that consumers have some assistance in seeking remedies against financial institutions.
A few minutes ago I proposed that an ombudsman be appointed who would have more power so that he or she could take on a case and go to bat in court for consumers who have been harmed—or who think they have been harmed—by banking practices, so that consumers would not have to use their own funds to defend themselves.
I think that we need to consider, in committee, how we can achieve the ultimate goal of giving consumers more power in their dealings with financial institutions, in terms of compliance with banking legislation but also their rights as consumers.
I would add that the minister’s answer was not what I was looking for. Helping consumers to make informed choices involves more than just handing out more information.
Financial institutions are more familiar with the ins and outs of the financial system and the money market than consumers are. That is in fact why we have given consumers specific rights, to protect them, because the seller always has more information about what it is selling than the buyer does.
I think that the committee will have a lot of work to do in this regard. As I said earlier, we will be voting for the bill on second reading precisely so that we will be able to do that job. In recent days, I have assured some of my fellow citizens that the Bloc Québécois is eager to do this.
The second objective deals with increasing legislative efficiency. Obviously, this is a motherhood issue. There are three key elements. The first involves reducing the regulatory burden placed on foreign banks to facilitate their entry into the Canadian market and stimulate competition; the second is to streamline the by-law approval process; and the third is to refine the federal legislative framework for credit unions.
The reason I am interested in the first element of this second objective, increasing legislative efficiency, is that this measure, which will reduce the regulatory burden, is a response to the concerns expressed during consultations on the review of the Financial Institutions Act.
The Canadian market, as we know, is extremely concentrated and dominated by five major banks. Any legislation that aims to promote competition is desirable, in our opinion.
I know that, in the past, laws have been passed to promote competition, but we have to acknowledge that they have not produced many results up to now.
Moreover this is what caused the Standing Committee on Finance—I do not recall exactly in which month—in its report on bank mergers in 2004, to be extremely reluctant to lift the moratorium on bank mergers. A market that is already concentrated, with a merger of two large banks from among the five largest, would end up being even more concentrated. And when you have concentration, you have an oligopoly, and an oligopoly means that consumers are extremely short-changed.
This is the present situation in the Canadian banking system. I could give my region as an example. In the Joliette region, there are relatively few banks, so we are more or less at the mercy of those that are there. We do not have an unlimited choice.
Therefore a measure that would promote the introduction of foreign banks into the Canadian market is welcome. In that regard, as I mentioned, Bill C-37 would clarify the measures applying to foreign banks operating in Canadian territory by refocusing the regulatory framework on the chartered banks and simultaneously excluding the near banks.
I do not need to define near banks but for the benefit of our audience, I will say that they are companies that offer financial services of a banking nature. Unlike chartered banks, near banks cannot change their basic money supply, that is, they cannot borrow money from or lend money to the Bank of Canada to make new deposits or loans.
So this is an interesting measure. We will get a better idea, as the committee studies the bill, of the scope of these measures designed to increase competition in the Canadian market. As I said, previous legislation did not produce many results.
The second element is the streamlining of the regulatory approval régime. This measure is designed to simplify the process pertaining to routine transactions not having any effect on public policies. So Bill C-37 wants to transfer the power to approve or refuse certain operations or transactions from the minister to the Superintendent of Financial Institutions.
This is one aspect of the bill we would like to address in committee and study in depth because we have to ensure that only decisions that do not impact public policy, as provided for in the legislation, are in the hands of the superintendent. From that perspective, the criteria and characteristics will be extremely important. How do we define a transaction or an operation that has no affect on public operations?
The Bloc Québécois will not allow the minister to depoliticize operations that will have an impact on public policy. Those have to stay in his hands and also be subject to a democratic debate.
The third aspect has to do with relaxing the federal framework governing credit unions. This is a request that has been made a number of times by the Standing Committee on Finance. In order to facilitate the opening of new credit unions, the government would lower to two the number of institutions required to constitute a credit union. At present, a minimum of 10 credit unions is needed to establish an association under the Cooperative Credit Associations Act.
However, in light of the new commercial possibilities offered by retail associations and the continued consolidation in the credit union system, the current requirement places too high a threshold for new entry. A lower requirement would add flexibility to the federal framework for the credit union system, improve the system’s capacity to adapt to new developments and enable it to better serve consumers and SMEs. As I was saying earlier, the major banks are in the process of leaving several regions in Quebec and Canada and, generally speaking, credit unions are picking up the slack. In Quebec, we are well served, but this is not the case in all the Canadian provinces.
The last objective includes all the other measures—and there are three. The first is to increase from 75% to 80% the loan-to-value ratio for which insurance is mandatory on residential mortgages. The second is to readjust the equity threshold above which a bank is required to be widely held and below which it can be more closely held. The third consists in increasing the limit, from one third to a minority, on the number of foreign members of the boards of directors of Canadian banks.
I will quickly outline what these measures entail and what the Bloc Québécois thinks of them. We agree with the first measure, which consists in raising the loan-to-value ratio requiring mortgage insurance from 75% to 80% for residential mortgages. The mortgage market has changed dramatically and is now much better known. Mandatory insurance for high loan-to-value ratio mortgages was introduced over 30 years ago as a prudential measure to ensure that lenders are protected against fluctuations in property values and associated defaults by borrowers. The last time the threshold was increased was following the Porter Commission in 1965, when it was raised from 66.7% to 75%. The market place has changed since then. The risk management practices of lenders have improved significantly. Regulatory risk-based capital requirements have been implemented. Capital markets have changed and matured. The supervisory framework for federally regulated financial institutions has been strengthened significantly
The restriction may therefore no longer serve the same prudential purpose. As a result, a statutory requirement for insurance set at 75% loan to value ratio may mean that certain consumers are paying more for their mortgage than is justifiable on a prudential basis. It is also preventing some Canadians from owning their own homes, whereas they could afford to own a home if the ratio were increased to 80%.
The second measure adjusts the equity thresholds that allow banks to be wholly owned or force them to be widely held. In 2001, a new sized-based ownership regime was implemented. Under the new regime, the equity threshold above which a bank is required to be widely held—I will come back to this definition—was set at $5 billion to capture the largest banks whose potential failure would have the greatest impact on the financial system and the economy. This was another fear that the Standing Committee on Finance had expressed in its report on bank mergers.
If a major bank were to go bankrupt in Canada, in such a highly concentrated market, how would the Canadian economy be affected? To ask the question is to answer it. The result would be disastrous. We therefore have to make sure that these banks are on extremely solid financial ground.
Under the 2001 regime, medium-sized banks with equity between $1 billion and $5 billion can be closely held, but are subject to a 35 per cent public float requirement (unless a ministerial exemption is obtained). Thus, there is at least some distribution of assets. This ensures that, if one of the shareholders is having difficulties, the financial institution itself can overcome the difficulties. Furthermore, the threshold for small banks, which can be wholly owned by a single shareholder, was set at $1 billion to encourage new entrants.
The intent of Bill C-37 is to change the equity thresholds in order to adjust to the new reality of the considerable growth in the banking industry since 2001. Thus, the equity threshold for sole ownership, that is, a single shareholder, would be raised to $2 billion. Furthermore, banks whose equity varies between $2 billion and $8 billion, rather than between $1 billion and $5 billion, must henceforth have a minimum of 35% of their voting shares listed on the stock exchange. Lastly, banks whose equity is greater than $8 billion, rather than $5 billion, as in 2001, must be widely held. Of course, this is nothing new to anyone here, but once again, for our viewers, a widely held company means that no one shareholder can hold more than 50% of the voting shares.
Finally, to account for the reality that Canadian banks are purchasing more and more foreign banks, the minority would be increased, which means that the voting majority on the board of directors must be Canadian citizens, not necessarily by birth or nationality, but Canadian citizens, nonetheless.