Friday, November 21, 2014

Will the carbon bubble threat spark the next global financial crisis?

I was a participant in this forum at The University of Melbourne's Asia Pacific Social Impact Leadership Centre earlier this week.

Panelists included Professor Ross Garnaut, former Liberal leader Dr John Hewson, Tony Wood of the Grattan Institute and Jemma Green of Curtin University.

With $20 trillion of potentially stranded fossil fuel assets, the forum attracted a big and vibrant audience.

Prof Ross Garnaut (far left); Dr John Hewson (third from left); Peter Ryan, Jemma Green, Tony Wood, Ben Neville, Prof Nasser Spear, Deputy Dean Melbourne Business School.

Here are my opening comments from the Carbon Bubble forum to set the scene for panelists and the audience:

The G20 Summit at the weekend and President Obama’s success in getting the issue of climate change firmly on the agenda is an important backdrop for us this evening.

Rather than seeing Tony Abbott shirtfront Vladimir Putin as sections of the media seemed to expect in a physical sense – it’s now looking as though Mr Abbott might have been the target of a shirtfront from Mr Obama.

And just few days before at the APEC Summit in China there was the unexpected development - that even took a few cynics by surprise - when China and the US pledged to reduce or limit their carbon emissions .

The US to cut by 26 to 28 percent below 2005 levels by 2025 – and China to cap emissions by 2030 or sooner.

So over the space of a week – perhaps we’re seeing climate change and the short and long term impacts being taken a bit more seriously.

It is of course significant that climate change made it into the G20's closing communique.

So when you think about the potential or frightening reality of a “carbon bubble” you almost see your life flash before your eyes.

How our lives and our high expectations revolve around fossil fuels.

How most of us are conditioned to a world that grinds along based on dirty coal, oil and gas.

How big business, industry, politicians and a range of vested interests are locked in to immense wealth generated through energy sources that are perhaps better suited to their genesis back in the industrial revolution.

There was a key phrase journalists were using at the APEC Summit.

It was “APEC blue” - as Chinese authorities shut down factories and took cars and trucks off the road.

Dirty brown skies that could be mistaken for an overcast day made way for a crisp blue Autumn sky you don’t always see in Beijing – as China and the US prepared to announce their ambitious new targets to slash emissions.

The APEC blue sky shows what can be done if the world is watching – but of course turning aspirational targets and ambitions into tangible and believe outcomes is another.

So here’s the issue we’re facing.

What would happen if to avoid the worst impacts of climate change, governments agreed to accelerate their move away from the use of fossil fuels?

What if renewable technologies started to take over faster than expected and the supply of fossil fuels began to outstrip demand quite dramatically as governments, industry and consumers took climate change seriously and switched away?

A study by HSBC has estimated that if remaining massive reserves of fossil fuels become redundant – they would become unburnable or “stranded assets”.

HSBC has put a number on that – and it’s in the realm of $20 trillion.

Devaluing those assets could end up halve the sharemarket value of fossil fuel companies.

And if you though the Global Financial Crisis sparked by the Lehman Brothers collapse in 2008 was bad – the Carbon Bubble according to some experts would be a whole new world of pain.

So as the scientific evidence of climate change begins to ramp up – just how seriously should we be taking the carbon bubble?

And how should investors respond given that superannuation funds are exposed and in turn – we’re all exposed in terms of our retirement nest eggs.

That should ring a few alarm bells – even for the cynics – especially when in addition to HSBC, you have Standard & Poor’s, Citibank, the Bank of England, Oxford University and the London School of Economics saying we need to take the carbon bubble threat seriously.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Gail Kelly retires as Westpac boss. So who will be banking's next female titan?

Gail Kelly's decision to retire in February next year is not exactly a surprise, although this morning's announcement was unexpected.

Listen to the breaking news on ABC NewsRadio from this morning.

For the past two years, the pressure had been growing and Mrs Kelly has managed to fob off the unwelcome question when it arose at various appearances and briefings.

Mrs Kelly's responses have been typically diplomatic and predictable, although she appeared particularly unimpressed when I asked for an update on her succession strategy last year.

It was a matter for the Westpac board, Mrs Kelly said, and while the multi-billion dollar profits continued to roll, Australia's highest paid banking boss sent that message that she was going nowhere.

That was until this morning when the announcement hit two hours before the stock exchange opened.

In the leadup to the official news that Mrs Kelly will at last retire, the positioning by her perceived successors was going on behind the scenes and in public.

The winner of the battle for one of banking's crowns is Brian Hartzer, Westpac's current chief of retail and business banking.

The vanquished is Rob Whitfield, Westpac's head of institutional banking, who while highly respected was seen as a long shot for the CEO gig.

Since coming on board in 2012, Mr Hartzer - well liked, urbane and quick witted - had ramped up public appearances but also had a profile at regular briefings Westpac holds for investors, analysts and the media.

A former ANZ senior executive, Mr Hartzer was seen to have been "courageous" in taking up a senior role at The Royal Bank of Scotland in 2009 at the height of the global financial crisis.

The Royal Bank of Scotland is still majority owned by the British taxpayer.

Having survived that, Brian Hartzer has seized the prize with a starting salary of $5.36 million, comprising a base rate and short term incentives. Another $2.5 million awaits if he meets requirements to cash in long term incentives.

That's about half Gail Kelly's $12.8 million for the past year, but with performance in his DNA, Brian Hartzer is well on the way on the assumption that he is not about to take a hospital pass.

The timing of this morning's announcement was perfect with a quiet session on global markets paving the way for maximum exposure about Mrs Kelly's success.

The news also follows Mrs Kelly's final full year profit as Westpac boss announced last week - up 8 percent to $7.6 billion.

Westpac would have been reluctant to overshadow another stellar result with the one of banking’s most anticipated announcements.

So what is Gail Kelly's legacy since joining Westpac in 2008?

Surviving and prospering through the global financial crisis and growing Westpac market value from $50 billion to today's $103 billion is surely one.

But she is in good company with other Australian banking bosses, who thanks the guarantees by the Australian taxpayer, have happy shareholders.

Delivering a merger between Westpac and St George Bank - having come to Westpac after running St George - is another.

The merger was controversial at the time amid concerns from the government at the time that more banks - rather than fewer - were needed.

The then Treasurer Wayne Swan approved the merger deal but not without strict controls on how Westpac would maintain St George shopfronts and importantly jobs.

Six years after that merger, the jury is still out on whether the Westpac-St George merger was actually good for Australian banking and whether in reality it provided more opportunities for Australian consumers to walk away if they didn't like their deal.

But today, it's all about Gail Kelly as Westpac's media machine ramps up to rightly portray her as one of Australia's most successful and savvy business operators – and a banking superstar.

With her replacement a man in Brian Hartzer, the question is who will step up to replace Gail Kelly as a female titan in Australian banking?

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Road trip into history - 25 years since the Berlin Wall came down

As global stories go, few compare to the crumbling of the Berlin Wall in November 1989 as Soviet Union satellite states across eastern Europe began to fall like dominoes.

I was working as a news producer for the BBC in London at the time and marvelled at the intense planning that involved intricate and often secret plans for mobilising reporters, producers, camera crews and pieces of satellite equipment into place for the anticipated fall of the Berlin Wall.

Not exactly a warm welcome - but all that changed in November 1989.    Picture: Peter Ryan

It was grey, muddy, cold and dirty. But the soldiers atop The Berlin Wall were smiling,  Picture: Peter Ryan

It was adrenalin charged event just to be working for the BBC as I helped to plan coverage for legendary correspondents like the late Brian Hanrahan and John Simpson who I had previously viewed from afar on the ABC foreign desk in Sydney as an aspiring correspondent myself.

As the fast-moving events unfolded and intensified, teams were sent behind the lines into eastern bloc nations like Romania and Bulgaria that seemed likely to topple as the anti-Soviet mood towards democracy took hold.

Although travel restrictions had been softened by East German authorities, no one expected what appeared to be possible from early October – the fall of the Berlin Wall was coming faster than expected.

With my wife Mary Cotter shortly after we arrived at our hotel near the fast crumbling Berlin Wall.

Chipping away at what once represented the Soviet Union's ironclad grip on East Germany.   Picture: Peter Ryan

While many of my colleagues were being enlisted to head to Berlin as the BBC planned major coverage, I was given the news I would be staying in London.

Rather than missing out on history in the making, and having exhausted lobbying efforts to be sent, I managed to book a week off - encouraged as always by my wife Mary Cotter who remains my best life adviser.

I discuss our journey from London to Berlin with John McGlue of 720 ABC Perth.

We hired a trusty Vauxhall and headed off at around 4am from London to take the ferry to Calais.

Despite being fogged in, we were invited in for coffee and croissant by a kind young French couple who were intrigued to see a couple an Aussie journalist and his New Zealander wife heading off on such an adventure.

Picture: Peter Ryan

Outside the Brandenburg Gate as it was in November 1989   Picture: Peter Ryan

More than twenty years before in-car navigation systems became commonplace, we studied foldout road maps and made our way to Bruges for the night, on to Hamburg the next day and then into East Germany on our way to Berlin.

As we got closer to Berlin, we soon saw streams of people, presumably east Germans in their Skodas and Ladas heading west – horns tooting, lights flashing, arms waving.

The new-found freedom of just going out on a day trip was their reason for jubilation and you could cut the happiness in the air with a knife.

It was all consuming and I thought at the time about how many Australians took their travel liberties for granted.

It was an unforgettable experience – and the excitement easily surpassed taking a right hand drive Vauxhall on West German autobahns as left hand drive BMWs and Mercedes glided past.

As soon as we checked into our hotel not far from Checkpoint Charlie, we headed out into the streets of West Berlin to witness history unfolding before our eyes.

East German soldiers peered through cracks in the Wall and even allowed those on the west side to light up their cigarettes.

This image sums up the high emotion on the West Berlin side of the Wall.    Picture: Peter Ryan

Cracks widening between West and East.    Picture: Peter Ryan

Soldiers walked atop the Wall, viewed by locals and tourists who jostled to clamber up makeshift stands to view over into the East.

Mary and I lined up to take our turn with a hammer and chisel chipping what we could from the graffiti covered Wall which was once an icon of the Soviet Union’s iron-fisted resolve against the west.

The chisel slipped and I emerged bloody having scraped the skin off my knuckles.

But it was a price I was prepared to pay to be a participant in an event the whole world was watching.

Ramps were constructed to get a better view of the grey, muddy landscape over the Wall.   Picture: Peter Ryan 

Picture: Peter Ryan
The next day we lined up at Checkpoint Charlie for our day visa to get over into East Berlin.

The weather was cold, drab and grey – just like the Soviet style architecture – but it was a privilege to be part of the generation that passed into East Germany knowing there was an easy and free way of getting out.

I returned to Berlin two years ago, once again as a tourist, and found it to be vibrant, colourful and free.

I walked through the Brandenburg Gate from west to east, remembering how it was a cold sealed-off no-go area just 23 years before.

Since then, German reunification has been a challenge but a eventually a successful template despite initial cries that the West German economy would not be able to sustain the extra demand for basic services and givens such as health care and education.

Our road trip from November 1989 might sound like the account of a journalist’s road trip.

But for me, it will always represent a career highlight and underscores the privilege of being a journalist with a front row seat to history.

Picture: Peter Ryan

Mary Cotter chipping away at history - the road trip was at her urging.     Picture: Peter Ryan

Unaccustomed as I am to hard labour, I made an exception for The Berlin Wall.     Picture: Mary Cotter

The Berlin Wall went up in 1961 - the year I was born.     Picture: Mary Cotter

The dark graffiti belies the jubilation that The Wall was about to come down,    Picture: Peter Ryan

Picture: Peter Ryan

Picture: Peter Ryan

A cold and desolate view towards the Brandenburg Gate.    Picture: Peter Ryan

Checkpoint Charlie     Picture: Peter Ryan

Picture: Peter Ryan

An East German guard on the east side of the Brandenburg Gate (from our day trip)              Picture: Peter Ryan

That's Mary Cotter with the white hood - yes, it was bloody cold!     Picture: Peter Ryan

"You can't change the world but you can change the facts"       Picture: Peter Ryan

"West is Best" says the slogan - money never sleeps.      Picture: Peter Ryan

Saturday, November 8, 2014

No answers only heartache six months after Korean ferry disaster

Picture: Peter Ryan

The sinking of the Sewol ferry off the Korean peninsula six months ago remains a source of deep sadness and heartache in South Korea.

The fallout from the tragedy stunned the nation and even today many people remain suspicious about the Korean government's investigation amid claims of fraud, embezzlement and corporate coverup over who's to blame.

I visited a tent city in downtown Seoul, not far from my hotel, which is dedicated to the lives of the more than 300 people - mainly high school students - who drowned when the Sewol ferry capsized back in April.

Here's my report from this morning's edition of Saturday AM on the ABC.

Picture: Peter Ryan

Yellow ribbons mourn the 300 lives lost when the Sewol ferry sank in April  Picture:Peter Ryan

Picture: Peter Ryan

Most of the Sewol tragedy victims were high school students who stayed in their seats waiting for instructions as the ferry capsized and sank.

The ferry captain is facing the death penalty, accused of jumping ship and saving himself. 

But he says the company is to blame for overloading the ferry and commissioning and illegal redesign.

The Sewol investigation has deadlocked Korea's National Assembly with more than 90 pieces of legislation, including a free trade agreement with Australia held up by the highly emotional and divisive investigation into the Sewol tragedy.

ABC business editor Peter Ryan with protester Misun Cho at the tent city

Many victims of the Sewol tragedy were high school students - protesters now worry their children are unsafe Picture: Peter Ryan

Picture: Peter Ryan

The vibrant music could be mistaken for a celebration. But there's only sadness here. Picture Peter Ryan

I visited South Korea as part of the Australia-Korea Journalist Exchange. 

Thanks to the Walkley Foundation, Australia's Department of Foreign Affairs & Trade and the Korea Press Foundation.

Friday, November 7, 2014

China property market a key global risk, Reserve Bank warns

Today's statement from the Reserve Bank provides some key reasons why we should be alert, though not necessarily alarmed, about the local and global economic picture.

While the RBA says the global outlook appears to be "broadly balanced", it's clear that low level alarm bells are ringing in central bank boardrooms around the world.

The big source of nerves is China's property market, which the latest quarterly statement describes as a "key risk".

Listen to my report broadcast on The World Today.

The RBA says Chinese property investors have been a source of uncertainty for some time, even though authorities have been trying to engineer a slower growth in property price - in other words, to prevent a dangerous bubble.

There's a chance that strategy might have worked given that the market appears to have cooled slightly.

However the RBA appears worried that some purchasing restrictions put in place have now been removed and that now "most cities and authorities have acted to supply some support to purchasers and developers".

The RBA is also nervous that if the Chinese property market slows down too rapidly, it could hurt Chinese commodity demand, economic activity or financial stability which would have implications for not only Australia but the world.

Even so, the RBA still believes China will achieve economic growth of 7.5 percent this year but thinks that should trend gradually lower as authorities trade off stellar expansion for financial stability.

Another key risk identified by the RBA as "a significant source" is a constant one - the still high level of the Australian dollar.

Despite recent falls as low as 85.66 US cents yesterday, the RBA says the dollar remains "above most estimates of fundamental value" and that a lower currency "would achieve more balanced growth in the economy" .

Last week's decision by Japan's central bank to ramp up its stimulus is now a fly in the RBA's ointment in terms of taming the dollar.

The RBA worries that funds from Japan will come looking to Australia for a high yield home and as a result "could hold the Australian dollar at a higher level than real economic fundamentals would imply".

Put simply - the RBA says the dollar might appear to be falling, but maybe not as much as it might appear.

Finally, the RBA says the timeline for the end of the investment phase of the mining boom is causing local angst.

It sees the speed and timing of any anticipated recovery in non-mining business investment as a major uncertainty.

The RBA says while "a substantial pickup" in the non-mining sector is some way away, it believe the fundamentals are in place for the transition from mining investment to begin.

And if the appetite for risk improve, the RBA is betting that growth in non-mining investment could be bigger than forecast.

Else, the RBA's latest statement is steady as she goes with growth steady, though still below trend, inflation within the 2 to 3 percent bank and the jobless rate expected to remain elevated above 6 percent.

As for the direction of interest rates the Reserve Bank is sticking to its no surprises policy and repeated that "the most prudent course" remains of period of stability.

For most economists, that means a rate rise mid to late 2015 - or until the US Federal Reserve decides it's time to push the rates button.

That is, unless any of the above risks nominated by the RBA, turn into bigger problems or even shocks.