Columnists Australia

Business/Robbery etc

Sour grapes - or inside knowledge?

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

14 February 2015

9:00 AM

While Gina Rinehart managed to emerge financially undamaged from her $300 million foolish five-year foray into Fairfax shares, she remained humiliatingly defeated in her attempt to have some influence over the journalists’ collective that appears to run the Sydney Morning Herald and the Age. She was denied a board seat despite being by far the biggest single shareholder, owning just under 15 per cent of the company.

But she did have a friend at court in Jack Cowin of Hungry Jacks, so was apparently well informed at what was happening inside the faltering giant as circulation crumbled, profits drooped and the share price collapsed from the $1.80 of five years ago to as low as 40 cents before recovering to last Friday’s 96 cents; she accepted a 10 per cent discount from this from merchant bankers Morgan Stanley and Bell Potter to get out relatively unscathed. So there appear to be brave institutional investors who have more faith in Fairfax management than Australia’s richest woman – but spreading the shares around them may generate even greater price instability Or is there someone keen to get a foothold in a declining industry who has swallowed the lot to become Fairfax’s biggest owner?

If her farewell slap at the ‘bad decisions’ by management which had ‘no workable plan’ to deal with the declining business and falling circulation was based on inside knowledge, then Fairfax’s rocky ride is set to continue. But if it was just sour grapes, perhaps the upcoming radio deal with John Singleton (a Rinehart ally at one stage of her Fairfax fracas) could be a step in the right direction. Her most telling lament: that bad management had ‘reduced the company’s performance to cover news to standards expected to maintain the credibility of some of the oldest and finest newspaper mastheads in the country’. It’s why I no longer subscribe.

It has started already. While a skittish stockmarket can’t make its mind up about the consequences for investors of the collapse in prices for those Australian resources that have underpinned our economic strength for a decade or so, reality has now emerged at the pointy-end of the problem. A newspaper advertisement, over the name of a corporate undertaker, said: ‘Expressions of interest are being sought by the Administrators for the purchase and/or recapitalisation of an ASX and FSE listed company operating in the mining and exploration industry’.

This is the first of many more to come. But it’s not just companies and their shareholders that are suffering the consequences of collapsing export demand combined with rapidly expanding production from major new projects coming on stream. Shelving or abandoning multi-billions of dollars of further new projects won’t help the current crisis, which has years yet to run.

The headlines confirm the impact on Australia of the slashing of prices for our coal, iron ore and hydrocarbon exports: ‘Jobs lost as miners stumble’, ‘Gas sector faces jobs bloodbath as price crash kills projects’ and not even the leaders are exempt, with ‘BHP slashes shale drilling’ and there are billions of dollars of asset write-downs on top of the investment deferrals throughout the resources sector. We’ve had the boom and wasted most of the proceeds, particularly with soaring budget deficits, so that now we are ill-prepared for the bust. Someone should tell the Senate we have a problem.

The Australian banking industry is quaking in fear. Suburban Sydney’s mighty (and Green-controlled) Marrickville Council has put into practice what the Australian National University made a fool of itself when partially attempting – ‘ethical investing’. It is pulling $15 million in deposits (out of its holding of $75 million in ratepayers’ money) from the four major banks because they all lend money to fossil fuel companies. So the best interests of ratepayers (who had no say in where their money should go) are to be served by ‘pure’ institutions like Bendigo Bank, Bank of Queensland and Suncorp that do not feed the dirty coal or gas habit.

Marrickville also protects its residents by being a nuclear-free zone, thus protecting them from decadently enjoying life-saving nuclear medicine.

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