Warnings Australia in rural financial crisis as farmers look to take on ANZ

7.30 Report

By Bronwyn Herbert

Video: Bronwyn Herbert reports of warnings Australia is in a rural debt crisis. (7.30)

Is Australia in the grip of a rural financial crisis?Photo: Is Australia in the grip of a rural financial crisis? (7.30 Report)

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There is growing concern Australia is in the grip of a rural financial crisis as banks foreclose on hundreds of properties and force farmers off the land – but some are vowing to fight back.

Rural lender Landmark, once owned by the Australian Wheat Board, held the long-term mortgages of hundreds of Australian farmers but at the height of the global financial crisis sold its loan book to big four bank ANZ.

Up until a recent decision to halt foreclosures for 12 months, ANZ was foreclosing on drought-stricken farmers who missed repayments.

With slumped property prices, some rural families also faced a situation where their debt was higher than the value of their farms.

Like hundreds of other farmers, Rodney Culleton did not choose to be an ANZ customer but faced the bank’s new loan agreements and demands for fresh guarantees after Landmark offloaded his loan.

There are calls for the farm debt "crisis" to be investigated as part of the banking sector inquiry. What do you think?

"We didn’t want to go with ANZ. We wanted to exit. So we didn’t make an application," he said.

"They did come with an offer and basically said ‘sign this or we’ll default you’. Well, we didn’t sign it. We didn’t sign it and so what they did is default us.

"And that makes it very hard to go forward, especially coming out of a drought and a GFC and because … not everyone wants to take on a farmer."

New loans ignored old terms and conditions: farmer

Fellow former Landmark client Guy Marshall said his loan suddenly became unmanageable.

"You’re running your operation on a certain set of terms and [on] your management and you’re borrowing is all done long term – like me out to 2031," he said.

"And next thing you know all these terms and conditions have changed, so default is inevitable."

The Culleton family called their sheep and wheat farm in Williams home for 20 years, but soon after the ANZ takeover they defaulted on their 15-year loan and were forced off the property.

"We were never in default, because under our loan agreement our cash flow was strong and we could meet our payments monthly. We were right on top of our true position with our business," Mr Culleton said.

"So, as far as saying a default occurred, [that] was simply not the case at all."

Receivers were appointed and gates were locked just before Christmas last year.

‘Case similar to subprime mortgage scandal’

Now without a farm or a livelihood, Mr Culleton has joined with other former Landmark clients and turned his energy towards a legal challenge.

The group acquired a key document, known as the master trust, which shows the Landmark loans did not have long-term funding, drawing comparisons with the subprime mortgage scandal which triggered the global financial crisis.

Rodney Culleton and his sonsPhoto: Rodney Colleton and his sons visit the property their family farmed and called home for 20 years. (ABC)

"The collapse of Lehman Brothers was over a securitisation scheme very similar to this, but on a much bigger scale," the farmers’ working group coordinator James Ferguson said.

"It affected the housing market in the United States and arguably around the world. This scheme, which affects only a proportion of Australian farmers, obviously doesn’t have the same reverberation around the world, but it’s certainly affecting the rural market for land."

Sydney barrister Peter King is representing families across three states who have been foreclosed after the ANZ takeover of Landmark.

"I have seen the master trust deed. It is a securitised loan arrangement. [It’s] complex," he said.

"In 2010, when the book debts of Landmark were purchased by ANZ [and] then ANZ came in as the manager, that’s where the problems appear to have started."

ANZ, Landmark case should join inquiry: barrister

Mr King believed the Federal Government has a responsibility to expand its banking sector investigation to include the current farm debt crisis.

"I think what’s really required now is to turn the CBA inquiry that Ian Callinan is running into a public independent inquiry," he said.

"The Landmark [and] Wheat Board rural portfolio needs to become part of that inquiry.

"So real lessons at the coalface can be learned and people have an opportunity to have their voice heard."

ANZ’s current moratorium on farm foreclosures does not help the Cullertons, but Rodney is determined to see the legal challenge through.

"I don’t want money. I want it right. I don’t want what’s happened to me happening to my kids, you know, [to] anyone. It’s wrong," he said.