ASIC Commissioner Alan Kirkland has described Australia's key regulatory priorities amid global trends.

Commissioner Kirkland spoke at the Australian Finance Industry Association (AFIA) Risk Summit 2024 this week.

A copy of his speech from ASIC's website outlines the regulator's strategic focus on critical issues such as financial hardship, climate change, and technological transformation.

Kirkland emphasised ASIC's commitment to addressing financial hardship, citing the recent release of Report 783 - Hardship, hard to get help: Lenders fall short in financial hardship support

The report revealed that 30 major lenders received over 440,000 hardship assistance requests in 2023. 

The review found that many customers faced significant barriers, with more than one in three dropping out of the process at least once after notifying their lenders of financial hardship.

“We found that lenders weren’t doing enough to support customers experiencing financial hardship. Too often, the hardship process was confusing and frustrating,” Kirkland stated.

Key issues include difficulties in notifying lenders of hardship, complex assessment processes, ineffective communication from lenders and inadequate support for vulnerable consumers.

Additionally, 40 per cent of customers who had payments deferred or reduced fell into arrears immediately after their hardship assistance ended. 

ASIC is requiring lenders to prepare action plans to address these issues and is considering further regulatory action to enforce compliance.

Kirkland said ASIC's broader efforts to protect vulnerable consumers include combating high-cost credit, predatory lending, and misconduct in used car financing. 

This focus extends to addressing practices that target First Nations people and other financially vulnerable groups. 

He said ASIC has taken enforcement actions against unlicensed lenders and is pursuing cases against companies for failing to assess borrowers’ repayment capacities properly.

Addressing climate change is a key priority for ASIC too, Kirkland said. 

He highlighted the agency's role in administering the upcoming mandatory climate-related disclosure regime, which aims to enhance market integrity by ensuring transparent corporate disclosures on climate-related targets and impacts.

“The time for preparation starts now – and we encourage industry to start thinking seriously about what you need to do today to meet your obligations,” the ASIC commissioner said. 

The regulator has also been active in addressing greenwashing, securing its first civil penalty action for misleading sustainability claims.

Kirkland noted that technological advancements bring both opportunities and risks; including a rise in scams, with Australians being swindled out of $2.74 billion in 2023. 

ASIC has targeted investment scams by removing approximately 5,000 scam websites since mid-2023. 

The agency is also reviewing the use of artificial intelligence (AI) in the financial sector to ensure compliance and address potential misuse, such as deepfake scams.

Cybersecurity remains a critical concern, with Kirkland stressing the importance of robust cyber risk management. 

He pointed out that many high-profile incidents could have been prevented with basic measures like multi-factor authentication.

“Our message is simple: corporations' obligations around good governance and the efficient, honest, and fair provision of financial services do not change with the uptake of new technology,” Kirkland said.