Thursday, December 4, 2014

Weak economic growth puts interest rate cut on RBA agenda

So what do those surprisingly weak economic growth numbers which hit yesterday mean for interest rates?

And how worried will the Reserve Bank be that about the ultimate risk of a recession unless it steps in with emergency stimulus?

They're big unanswered questions and why some economists are now changing their forecasts to a interest rate cut in the New Year.

Listen to my analysis from this morning's edition of "AM".

The Reserve Bank has held the cash rate steady at the historic low of 2.5 percent since August last year.

The mantra - repeated on Tuesday when rates were left unchanged - has been about "a period of stability" as the economy adjusts from the fast unwinding mining investment boom.

The RBA has been taking what it sees as the most "prudent" course, despite calls for a rates hike to cool hot property investment in Sydney and Melbourne and the threat of a dangerous "bubble".

That strategy has been backed by third quarter growth slower than the most pessimistic forecasts and that with a collapse in commodity prices after the boom and a slowing in capital spending, Australia is in the midst of an "income recession".

The RBA board takes January off and meets on the first Tuesday of February - and the possibility of a rate cut to stimulate spending and to bring the dollar down is set to be high on the agenda.

The Australian dollar dived when the GDP data hit yesterday and this morning is hovering around 84 US cents on expectations of a rate cut in 2015.

Even before the weak GDP data, Deutsche Bank changed its rates forecast - down half a percentage point in two 25 basis point steps - with unemployment set to rise, inflation under control and no sign yet of a housing bubble.

Late yesterday, Goldman Sachs mirrored that prediction and is tipping the RBA will start cutting rates in March with followup in August taking the cash rate to a fresh historic low of two percent.

That could stoke further housing investment but stemming damage to the broader economy will be the RBA's main aim if the Board decides to blink and cut rates.

And unlike other central banks like the US Federal Reserve and the European Central Bank which have rates near zero, Australia has enough powder dry to press the rate cut button if needed.

The latest retail sales figures for October due this morning could add to concerns about the strength of the economy.

But forecasts are looking bleak just a few weeks before Christmas.

The consensus according to a Reuters survey is showing little or no growth - a rare zero percent outcome - with some economists are tipping a negative result.

That's more evidence that the cautious consumer is becoming a grinch, watching every penny and not spending despite Joe Hockey's call to spend up for Santa.

And a rate cut might just be the medicine or a temporary hit to get Australians spending.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Oil price dives as OPEC rolls out "do nothing" strategy

The price of oil collapsed overnight after OPEC nations decided against cutting production to prop up dwindling values.

And expectations are that crude prices might go even lower after the usually powerful Gulf producers decided to do nothing.

Listen to my report on The World Today

The deepening oil slide has hurt energy companies around the world and some big names in Australia have seen their share prices dive this morning.

Santos fell ten percent, Tap Oil nine percent and Oil Search was almost eight percent lower in late morning trade.
Despite the oil price sliding in recent months, weeks and days, there were low expectations for today's meeting of OPEC oil ministers in Vienna.

Not surprisingly the 12 member cartel delivered on that anticipation and maintained production of 30 million barrels a day, holding firm in the face of too much oil chasing too few customers and and growing pressure to tighten the oil tap.

So how low can the oil price go before OPEC bends to self interest and counters with lower supply to prop up the price?

OPEC secretary general Abdulla el-Badri wouldn't put a number on it and said he was relaxed - for now anyway.

"There's a price decline. That does not mean that we should really rush and do something," Mr el-Badri told reporters.

"We don't want to panic. I mean it. We want to see the market, how the market behaves, because the decline of the price does not reflect a fundamental change."

OPEC's decision to "do nothing" only sent the oil price lower.

West Texas Intermediate crude went to US$69 a barrel having fallen by a third this year.

Brent crude fell to its lowest level since 2010 shortly after the OPEC decision became public.

Analysts say that OPEC is being forced to let market forces apply and unable to use its traditional muscle because of slowing growth in Europe and China.

An even bigger complication is the United States - which is on its way to oil independence with local production of shale oil at a three decade high.

While OPEC's heavy hitters - Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and the UAE - are driving the "do nothing" strategy, smaller member nations are furious.

Venezuela - which relies on a high oil price to underpin government finances - is said to have stormed out of the meeting after the OPEC kingpins refused to cut production.

Wall Street was closed for the Thanksgiving Day holiday but elsewhere financial markets were hit hard.

Russia's ruble went to a record low and energy stocks in London were hit hard.

The Australian dollar is also a casualty of the oil price price - down to 85.1 US cents.

It's become a test of nerves for OPEC and oil investors.

So will OPEC blink before the global oil glut really starts to hurt?

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