I am Leon Gettler. My job is to review and monitor the week’s news in business, finance, and economics. I bring it all to you, every week.
This is episode number nine in our series for 2020 and today’s date is Friday, April 3.
First I talk to executive and leadership development coach Ronan Leonard who connects people up with his online platform Eccountability, the first global virtual mastermind platform. He is helping service professionals move their business online as the coronavirus social distancing rules and lockdown come into effect.
And then I’ll be talking to Indeed economist Callam Pickering analysing Australia’s unemployment figures, the likely impact of the coronavirus on the job market and what the RBA is doing about it.
But first, let’s talk to Ronan Leonard
Bloody hell! The US Federal Reserve estimates coronavirus job losses could top 47 million and a 32.1% unemployment rate, topping the Great Depression peak of 24.9%.
Businesses will be paid a wage subsidy of up to $1,500 per employee, under a Federal Government plan to keep thousands of Australians in work during the coronavirus crisis. Almost half the workforce will receive $1500 a fortnight for the next six months under a record $130 billion wage subsidy.
In good news for workers already laid off by companies like Qantas, Myer and retail billionaire Solomon Lew’s Premier Investments, the government’s wage help will be backdated to cover staff stood down – not permanently sacked – in recent weeks. The new scheme will form part of the Government’s third economic assistance package.
Mr. Morrison and Treasurer Josh Frydenberg announced that an estimated six million people – those sacked or stood down since March 1, as well as those still working for struggling small, medium and big businesses – would be eligible for the payment which is designed to keep workers and business connected. The money is a flat payment, meaning everybody receives the same amount, regardless of current or previous income, and it will be paid to employers through the Australian Tax Office.
To be eligible, companies with turnovers of less than $1 billion must have lost at least 30% of turnover, while those with turnovers of more than $1 billion, such as airlines, must be down by at least 50%. The employer must then use the payment to subsidise wages for those still working, or pay it directly to those who are stood down but are still on the books. If a worker has been retrenched since March 1, the employer can put them back on the books so they become eligible for the payment.
This would disqualify them for the separate welfare wage of a maximum of $1100 a fortnight, known as the JobSeeker payment, which is administered through Centrelink. For people who will still be dependent on the welfare wage, the government also on Monday lifted from $48,000 to $79,762 the amount an unemployed person’s partner can earn before they become ineligible for the benefit.
The new $1500 JobKeeper payment is effective immediately. It will be taxed like normal income but there will be no superannuation guarantee payable on the money. Those eligible are full-time and part-time workers as well as casuals who have been with the same employer for 12 months. Sole traders and the not for profit sector are included. The payment will be made to eligible businesses in the first week of May as monthly arrears from the Tax Office.
The businesses can either start paying workers now, if they have the cash flow, or backpay them to March 30 when the money arrives. As part of the “Team Australia” debt relief for firms hobbled by the virus, banks are expanding six-month repayment deferrals to 30,000 extra small and medium enterprises (SMEs) for loans up to $10 million. In a quid pro quo, banks will require participating mid-sized commercial landlords not to evict tenants such as retail shops that can’t afford rent.
Australia’s benchmark index has ended the first quarter of the year nearly $500 billion poorer, down 24%, after falling from a market capitalisation of $2 trillion down to $1.56 trillion. While it is too early to say if the relentless efforts from central banks and governments to support the global economy would be enough to cushion economic recession and support stock markets, the underperformance of stock markets rarely lasts for a long time. The benchmark ASX 200 index finished Tuesday’s session at 5076.8 points, a decline of 104.6 points, or 2%. Since the start of the year, the index has slumped from a session high of 7197 on 20 February to a low of 4402.50 on March 23. Markets have tumbled as governments impose travel restrictions and lockdowns in a bid to slow to spread of COVID-19, but which are also likely to lead to a recession. Future market performance depends on the rate of coronavirus infections and deaths around the world.
The COVID-19 pandemic will force the federal and state governments into their highest levels of debt since the post-World War II years, with expensive stimulus measures and a plunge in tax receipts to push public debt to $1.5 trillion next year. Servicing the debt could also push future governments to consider new and radical options, with a range of suggestions canvassed on Tuesday by experts, including a renegotiation of the GST, an overhaul of the tax and industrial relations systems and diluting of superannuation concessions. UBS chief economist George Tharenou said debt across governments would increase by $500bn by the end of next year — the equivalent of 80% of gross domestic product — pushing it to levels not seen since the 1950s. Mr. Tharenou expected combined state and federal budget deficits in the 2021 financial year to reach 16% of GDP — the highest since World War II.
The government’s promised tax cuts may need to be wound back as the nation’s finances face what former Reserve Bank of Australia governor Bernie Fraser describes as a “reckoning” to deal with an explosion in budget deficits and public sector debt that could reach $1.5 trillion. Prime Minister Scott Morrison has spent $194 billion on stimulus measures to fight the economic impact of the coronavirus, including a $130 billion wage subsidy package announced on Monday.
Economists have generally welcomed the response but forecast the government’s plan to be net-debt free by 2030 is now highly unlikely, with some MPs resigned to dealing with an “inter-generational debt” transfer lasting decades. Mr. Fraser, who was Reserve Bank governor during Australia’s last recession in 1991, predicted there would be a “reckoning” for a swathe of government policies – including tax cuts – as the economy comes to grips with “an awful overhang of debt”. He said the cost of the government’s support packages, the equivalent of the entire annual defence, education and health budgets combined, would mean the government would have to re-examine policies it had already legislated. A new tranche of company tax cuts for firms earning under $50 million starts next financial year, while personal income tax cuts worth $132 billion over a decade beginning in 2022-23.
Australia’s economic growth could be slashed by up to 22% in the short term from shutdowns of business activity in response to the coronavirus, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development has warned. Huge government and central bank economic rescue packages, however, are likely to partially offset the expected steep declines.
In a preliminary international analysis, the OECD said partial and full shutdowns of economies by governments around the world to contain the virus would lead to sharp contractions in the level of output, household spending, corporate investment, and international trade. Australia’s high exposure to mining and agriculture activity could shield it from the worst of the slump. The Paris-based organisation guessed economic output in Australia could initially fall as much as 22%, in between the 20% to 25% tip for other advanced economies. The slump in world economies would far outweigh the international recessions experienced during the 2008-09 global financial crisis. The OECD estimates the level of economic output would cut 2 percentage points from GDP for each month that strict containment measures are in place.
Residential and commercial landlords will be banned from evicting tenants under financial stress caused by the coronavirus economic downturn for the next six months, federal and state governments have announced. The national cabinet on Sunday agreed to the moratorium on evictions for tenants, amid concerns the jobless and struggling retailers won’t be able to afford full rent. Landlords and tenants not significantly affected by coronavirus are expected to honour their leases and rental agreements, the national cabinet said.
Banks will act as a backstop by offering loan repayment deferrals to help landlords ride out a fall in rental income, while federal and state governments are working on a package of tax relief measures to ease the financial burden on property owners. The coronavirus economic recession is already leading to mass job losses across retail, hospitality, tourism, leisure, sport, and entertainment. Retailers are temporarily shutting stores including Myer, Cotton On Group, Country Road, footwear retailer Accent Group, jewellery chains Michael Hill and Lovisa, fashion retailers Mosaic Brands, City Chic and PAS Group, outdoor leisure retailer Kathmandu, homewares retailer Adairs and auto parts retailer Bapcor.
The federal government has placed severe, immediate and indefinite restrictions on all foreign investment bids following at least two cases of Chinese-owned companies in Australia securing tonnes of precious medical supplies and shipping them back to China. Effective from 10.30pm Sunday, Treasurer Josh Frydenberg lowered to zero the dollar value of every foreign investment bid that would trigger scrutiny by the Foreign Investment Review Board and then, ultimately, by him.
Presently, there are varying foreign investment thresholds depending on the buyer, the country in which they are based, and the type of asset being sought. Thresholds range from $1.192 billion to $275 million to zero. Under the change, the threshold is zero for everything, meaning all bids will have to be weighed against the national interest. As well as protecting distressed Australian businesses and assets from fire sale takeovers, the crackdown was sparked after two Chinese-owned property developers, Greenland Australia and Risland Australia, had staff secure more than 100 tonnes of equipment and ship it back home. Greenland employees sourced bulk supplies of surgical masks, thermometers, antibacterial wipes, hand sanitiser, gloves, and Panadol in January and February as the coronavirus took hold in its point of origin, Wuhan, and spread throughout China.
As thousands of Australian workers are displaced by the coronavirus pandemic, several industries are “bucking the trend,” according to new LinkedIn data. The three industries most likely to serve as a “bright spot” for jobseekers are IT, healthcare and finance. Hiring activity has grown by more than 17% in software services and IT between February 10 and March 19. Similarly, it was up 12.6% in healthcare and 10.3% in finance. The impact of the virus is obvious in other sectors, however, with overall hiring activity declining by 25.6% for the period.
Ansell is one of the few large ASX-listed companies experiencing much higher demand in the coronavirus pandemic with sales of its body protection suits, single-use examination gloves, and surgical gloves booming. Ansell on Monday was able to re-iterate its full-year profit guidance because of the spike in demand for its products used in the health and hospital system, even though demand for other products used by manufacturers and industrial customers is falling.
The company is also lifting manufacturing capacity at some plants by making extra investments to try to keep up with the extra demand from the hospital and medical sectors. Ansell is working closely with government authorities around the world to ensure its production facilities could keep manufacturing these in-demand products. A range of stringent measures had been put in place at the group’s factories including daily temperature checks and screening of the workforce, social distancing rules and extra sanitation of surfaces. Ansell has a workforce of 13,000 around the world, with its main operations in North America, Asia, Europe, and Latin America.
Woolworths has partnered with Australia Post and logistics company DHL to supply Australians who are unable to leave their homes with boxes full of supermarket basics. For a flat $80, customers can receive a box containing meals, snacks, and a few essential items, delivered to their door via Australia Post in 2 to 5 days.
A trial of existing HIV and arthritis drugs that could stem the coronavirus tide will start next Monday with the help of a $1m donation from Australia’s richest person, Anthony Pratt. The renowned Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne will begin the trial, planned for 60 hospitals across Australia, seeking treatment for the virus to possibly kill it, stop it multiplying or helping the body overcome it. Mr. Pratt said COVID-19 needed “a call to arms” from Australia’s wealthiest people to contribute even more than in the manner they did for the bushfire crisis earlier this year.
The federal government looks set to reject Virgin Australia’s initial request for a $1.4 billion bailout loan, as Qantas pressures its debt-laden rival by insisting any government assistance be proportional and tensions between the two airlines reach new heights. Virgin has asked for a $1.4 billion loan to help it survive the coronavirus crisis.
Finance Minister Mathias Cormann said the government is committed to having two competitive domestic airlines, but didn’t outline what any additional industry-wide financial support might involve. “It is not our plan to take a stake in an airline,” Mr. Cormann told the ABC. “But let me also say that on the other side of all of this, we are committed to ensuring that through our policy settings and like that on the other side, that we have two competing airlines.” The latest battle between the airlines on the form of government assistance should take comes a week after Virgin complained to the competition regulator that Qantas was spreading misinformation designed to undermine the smaller airline during the turmoil. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission is examining whether Qantas breached the law and engaged in false or misleading statements about rival Virgin Australia which could have influenced moves in the share prices of both airlines.
Australia’s leading fruit, baked bean, spaghetti processor SPC Ardmona says it is canning and packaging as fast as it can but running out of raw product after waves of panic buying. SPC chairman Hussein Rifai said sales of canned and packaged fruit, tomatoes, baked beans, and spaghetti had gone crazy, with the product now being loaded straight from production lines at Shepparton in regional Victoria on to trucks.
Supermarkets have imposed limits on canned food purchases and SPC is running 24 hours a day, seven days a week to keep up. SPC has stopped making varieties of core products so that the production line can run flat out, but is reaching the point where there is no fruit or tomatoes left to process. There is also no specific Commonwealth legislation that provides the government with authority to regulate or manage the manufacture, distribution or sale of food in the event of a significant disruption to either local production or imports. As well as canned and packaged food products, Australia is running low on pasta with imports from Italy disrupted and is no longer self-sufficient in rice.
Boots and outdoor clothing maker RM Williams is temporarily shutting down its factory at Salisbury in northern Adelaide because of the coronavirus pandemic, with 709 staff to be stood down. The company had already shut its 57 retail stores in Australia and 12 overseas outlets on March 29, and after a full review of the operations, decided a temporary closure of the manufacturing site for four weeks was the best strategy in the short-term. Luxury goods makers around the world have been experiencing a sudden drop in demand as the economic turmoil from the coronavirus pandemic accelerates, with people staying at home and aggressively cutting back on discretionary spending.
And that’s it for this week. And next week, I’ll be talking to uniSA’s Professor Jana Matthews giving her tips for business survival in this pandemic. And then I’ll be talking to economist Nicholas Gruen looking at what lessons we can learn from the pandemic and how we can do things better.
In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter at talkingbizz, on Facebook, and on LinkedIn. And if you want, leave a comment. Wishing you all a safe and healthy week and looking forward to bringing you Talking Business next week.