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 forty-three in our series for 2019 and today’s date is Friday November 22.
First, I talk to George Syrmalis, the CEO of iQ Group Global, a group of companies dedicated to developing early-stage bioscience assets.
And then I’ll be talking to Indeed economist Callam Pickering, looking at the latest figures for Australia’s unemployment and wage growth.
But first, let’s talk to George Syrmalis.
President Donald Trump’s trade war with China has become a bigger, broader economic forever war. It’s hard to look ahead and see any outcome that undermines that emerging reality. A “phase one” deal may be in what U.S. officials say is its messy end stages. But that deal, if it comes, will be partial and more ceasefire than a game-changer.
It also doesn’t mean a larger peace is nigh. Moreover, there are three live truths that are becoming inescapable: While both the U.S. and China have worked hard to maintain a wall between their trade talks and other political developments, that’s becoming harder with each passing week.
The events in Hong Kong over the weekend, with police laying siege to a university, are escalating as are the calls in Washington for U.S. action. The weekend publication by the New York Times of documents detailing the official Chinese campaign against Muslim minorities in Xinjiang will only add to that sentiment. The art of the trade deal is the art of knowing how to exploit the domestic politics of your opponent. It’s hard for a dispassionate observer to look at the impeachment inquiry, or the weekend gubernatorial election win for Democrats in Louisiana and see strength for Trump. Beijing has long been best at misreading American politics and Trump has been a unique political phenomenon. But the reasons are only growing for China to hold out for elections that are now less than a year away.
The accountancy giant KPMG is not renewing its sponsorship of Prince Andrew’s entrepreneurial scheme Pitch@Palace in the wake of his much-derided interview in which he defended his friendship with Jeffrey Epstein. The Duke of York has been heavily criticised as having shown neither contrition nor sympathy for Epstein’s child victims in the BBC Newsnight interview and his suitability as patron to scores of charities and organisations has been called into question as a result.
Buckingham Palace has confirmed that KPMG, a founding partner of Pitch@Palace, a mentorship scheme for budding entrepreneurs, was no longer involved, its contract having ended in October. The accountancy firm refused to comment but the prince’s relationship with Epstein – and Virginia Giuffre (formerly Roberts), who says she had sex with the duke when she was 17, a claim he denies – has been under renewed scrutiny since the billionaire financier was arrested in July. The previously convicted child sex offender killed himself in prison in August. The palace said a full programme of Pitch@Palace events would continue. However, the organisation’s webpage listing its supporters, which previously included KPMG as well as the likes of Air Asia, Bosch, Standard Chartered, the Stelios Philanthropic Foundation, Bank of China and Barclays, had been taken down.
The ANZ Roy Morgan Consumer Confidence Index was down again last week, falling 1.1% to 109.9. The weakness was predominantly due to the economic conditions component of the index. Current economic conditions fell by 2.6%, while future economic conditions were even more downbeat, falling 4.9%. Both these subindices are near their multiyear lows.
HSBC Holdings Plc has more than doubled its forecast for Australian property price increases next year as low-interest rates and looser borrowing rules send buyers flooding back into the market. The bank now expects nationwide prices to rise by 5% to 9% in 2020, up from previously expected gains of 0% to 4%, Paul Bloxham, HSBC’s chief Australia and New Zealand economist, said in a note on Tuesday. Major cities Sydney and Melbourne are expected to lead the charge, as in the previous boom. HSBC is now forecasting gains of 8% to 12% in Sydney next year and 10% to 14% in Melbourne.
The rapid turnaround in the market, where just six months ago the question was how much further prices would fall, comes at a time when the overall economy is weakening. The Reserve Bank of Australia has cut interest rates three times since June in an attempt to boost hiring and investment, but so far the main impact of the easing seems to have been to push housing prices higher.
Scott Morrison has all but slammed the door on fast-tracked tax cuts or other ”panicked reactions” in next month’s mid-year budget update, saying the government has already injected $9.5 billion of near-term stimulus into the economy since the May election. Under external pressure to do more to stimulate the economy than he has already indicated, the Prime Minister revealed that $3.8 billion of infrastructure spending has been fast-tracked over the next four years. Of this, $1.8 billion will be spent this financial year and next.
Along with the $550 million in extra drought aid already announced, and the $7.2 billion stage one income tax cuts rolled out on July 1, that amounts to $9.5 billion of stimulus in two years, the Prime Minister said. In a speech to the Business Council of Australia annual dinner in Sydney, Mr. Morrison made it clear that he considers that level of stimulus to be sufficient for now and that he must also protect the budget returning to surplus.
Treasurer Josh Frydenberg says the aging population is an economic time bomb and has signaled a drive to get people in their mid and late 60s to work longer and undertake training to keep in touch with the jobs market as the government confronts long term pressures to the budget bottom line. Mr. Frydenberg used an address to the Committee for the Economic Development of Australia to argue a “new dynamic” in the way the country’s population is aging will require new policies to ensure the nation’s economic heavy lifting is not left to a diminishing number of younger people.
The government has to release its latest intergenerational report, which will map out the direction of the nation’s finances over the next 40 years, by March. The last iteration, heavily criticised for its focus on Labor policies, was released by then-treasurer Joe Hockey but a suite of promises underpinning it have been ditched. These dumped plans included cuts to health and education spending as well as the proposal to lift the age pension access age to 70.
The pension change was ultimately dropped by Scott Morrison soon after he became Prime Minister. Treasury is currently working on the new intergenerational report which will have to take into account the absence of the ditched policies as well as substantial demographic changes since 2014. Mr. Frydenberg said that in 2014-15 the number of working-age Australians for every person over the age of 65 was 4.5 to 1. Over the next four decades, this is expected to fall to 2.7 to 1. This change, he said, will require a “range of policy responses”. The Treasurer will note the proportion of people over 65 in the workforce, either with a job or looking for employment, had climbed to 14.6% from 12.3% over the past five years. But it would have to grow even higher.
South Australia’s big Tesla battery’s output and storage will increase by 50%, with help from the State and Federal Government. The upgrade is expected to be completed by mid-2020 and provide more security to the grid once labeled the “Hollywood solution” by Prime Minister Scott Morrison, who also likened it to the world’s biggest banana or the world’s biggest prawn, the expansion will be financed through the Federal Government’s Clean Energy Finance Corporation. French renewable energy company Neoen said it would take the battery’s output from 100 to 150 megawatts, with the South Australian Government committing $15 million and the Australian Renewable Energy Agency contributing $8 million.
Amazon has teamed up with the Commonwealth Bank, Stockland and newsagents to build a network of locations where customers can pick up online purchases rather than have them delivered to their homes. Known as Amazon Hub, the locations include automated lockers in Commonwealth Bank branches, Stockland malls, and Victorian Authorised Newsagents Association (VANA) stores and more than 100 counters in newsagents. Hundreds of parcel pick-up locations will be available by the end of 2019, mainly in NSW and Victoria, and thousands will be established across Australia next year.
CommInsure, the Commonwealth Bank’s insurance arm, has pleaded guilty to 87 breaches of the anti-hawking legislation and agreed to refund some 30,000 customers $12 million for unfair phone calls. The Australian Securities and Investments Commission announced that between October and December 2014, CommInsure agents unlawfully sold a policy known as Simple Life, despite the customers not requesting marketing information from the insurer.
The financial crimes regulator is taking action against Westpac for alleged systemic and frequent failures to adhere to money laundering laws. AUSTRAC chief executive Nicole Rose said the bank was “deficient” in multiple areas and failed to report 19.5 million international fund transfers over five years. It alleges over 23 million contraventions of the anti-money laundering law. The transfers amounted to $11 billion and related to money coming in and out of Australia, mainly to the Philippines and south-east Asia. Ms. Rose said it led to a “significant loss of intelligence”. Some of the reports related to potential child exploitation risk. Most were to four of its corresponding banks. The penalty will be determined by the Federal Court.
ANZ has a plan to challenge tech giants Google and Facebook. The major ASX banks of ANZ, Commonwealth Bank of Australia, National Australia Bank and Westpac are facing increasing pressure from tech players wanting to take a slice of their earnings. Google Pay, Apple Pay, and other tech offerings are gaining traction with consumers, taking a little bit of power from the major ASX banks. Facebook Pay will also soon be a thing, which isn’t related to the cryptocurrency project Libra.
Google is looking into ways to offer transaction accounts through Google Pay. But ANZ has a plan and is developing and testing new business models in a “lab” division with 40 staff. It’s investing in seven fintech start-ups and has also been given the objective of generating revenue in areas adjacent to banking. The fintech investments are: Lendi, Brickfloor, Valiant Finance, Divipay, Slyp, Data Republic and BUD. The first project that has made it into the public sphere is ‘The One Spot’, a service designed to help first home buyers. But ANZ won’t be releasing details of any other projects yet.
More than a thousand Woolworths’ employees in NSW have won a pay rise of 16% over three years, more than double the average rate of wage growth. The supermarket giant has agreed to front-load an 8% pay rise for warehouse workers at its Minchinbury distribution centre followed by annual increases of 4% until 2021 as part of a new enterprise agreement backed by workers on Saturday.
The in-principle deal followed mass strikes last week and is the first win under the banner of the newly-formed United Workers Union – a merger of the National Union of Workers and United Voice that has created the biggest blue-collar union in the country. The pay rise stands in stark contrast to the latest wage growth data in the private sector, which shows average increases have dropped to 2.2% and pay rises in enterprise agreements have fallen to 2.8%. Woolworths’ sizeable first-year increase is understood to be a response to low pay rises in the centre’s last agreement, which saw wages increase by 7.5% over three years.
A $25 billion dollar investment boom in renewable energy projects has pushed up wages for renewable jobs, bucking the low wage growth trend in the rest of the private sector. Wage growth in the renewable sector will continue in 2020 with some wages growing by 26%, according to a survey analysing thousands of salaries by recruitment firm Robert Walters.
This compares with the latest wage growth figures showing a 2.2% wage rise across the country and private sector wages growing 0.5% for the September quarter, the lowest result since March last year. Robert Walters forecasts 16,000 professional jobs will be created in 2020, as 103 renewable energy projects are constructed across Australia. Asset managers who oversee the operation of solar, wind and hydro plants once they are fully operational are set to receive the biggest jump of 26%, taking their forecasted median wage to $175,000 in 2020. Construction managers, who oversee the building of the renewable energy plants, are set to receive an 18% jump to a median wage of $190,000. Power grid connection managers are likely to see an 11% increase to $200,000.
Gender equality is stalling at the top levels of the workplace, experts warn, as the share of female chief executives and board members stagnates and efforts to close the gender pay gap achieve only modest gains. The Workplace Gender Equality Agency scorecard reveals that the gender pay gap closed just slightly in the past year, down 0.5% to 20.8%, and that men still out-earn women by an average $25,679 a year. The number of women in management roles rose slightly to a 39.4% share but the number of female chief executives remained flat at 17.1% for the second consecutive year. Meanwhile, the number of women on boards inched up 1 percentage point to 26.8%.
Energy giant Alinta is threatening an early closure of one of Australia’s biggest coal-fired power stations, as the low cost of renewables would likely make coal obsolete. It’s a move that is likely to put it on a collision course with the Federal Government. Jeff Dimery, chief executive of Alinta, believes the company’s largest coal generator will close much earlier than its 2048 deadline. He said the Government should “explore high-energy, low-emission coal-fired power and carbon capture and storage”. Alinta currently doesn’t own any renewable projects but says it has funded the development of significant solar and wind farms. Dimery said the low cost of renewables would likely make coal obsolete.
He believes the low cost and increasing reliability of renewables mean Alinta’s largest coal-fired power station, Loy Yang B, which supplies around a fifth of Victoria’s energy needs, will close much earlier than its 2048 deadline. But the early closure of power stations has been met with fierce condemnation from the Federal Government. Energy Minister Angus Taylor recently launched a task force to look at all potential impacts of AGL’s closure of the Liddell power station in New South Wales.
Woodside is set to become one of the largest owners of native trees in Australia as it rolls out its carbon offset program. Climate change is forcing the management and board of the company to examine what the company will look like following the execution of the next suite of projects including Sangomar (2023), Scarborough (2024), Browse I (2026) and Browse 2 (2027). Earlier this year, Woodside partnered with Greening Australia as part of a mass tree planting exercise. The company is funding the planting of native trees to create large carbon sinks in Australia. And it knows that replacing the energy equivalent of one train of LNG at Pluto in Western Australia would require 60 gigawatts of renewable power to make the hydrogen required for that energy. That is equivalent to solar panels covering the entire Sydney area.
And that’s it for this week. And next I’ll be talking to Justin Wastnage, the founder and CEO of Sydney tech startup Vloggi which is being billed as the ‘Canva’ of video content production, having built a platform to allow marketers with no filming skills or experience crowdsource video campaigns anywhere in the world and create authentic, professional-looking video content to help bolster digital marketing efforts. And I’ll be talking to Alex Joiner, chief economist at IFM investors about the outlook for the Australian economy.
And of course, I’ll be bringing you all the week’s news. In the meantime, you can find me on Twitter at talkingbizz, on Facebook and on LinkedIn. And if you want, leave a comment. Have a great week, take care, be good and looking forward to bringing you Talking Business next week.