Oil prices and the corona virus

The oil price used to spike upwards at the first sign of global fear. But times have changed. As a commodity, oil remains essential to modern life and economic welfare. However, its production is now more geographically dispersed than ever before. The US is a net exporter of oil. No longer is the middle east, and the Persian Gulf in particular, the most important part of a world that relies on oil for energy.

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Never ending impeachment

What just happened in Washington, DC? The Democrat controlled House of Representatives passed articles of impeachment against President Trump and then failed to deliver the articles to the Senate. Why not? The US constitution specifies the process to impeach a President. Up until last week, the Democrats were arguing that impeachment was an urgent necessity, the security of the country was as stake. Why the delay?

I can make no sense of this. The Democrats are now making themselves look silly. Now that the Congress is in recess over Christmas, some legal opinions say that the impeachment articles will lapse. Has the President been impeached or not?

The only possible reason that I can come up with for this delaying tactic is that the Democrats know the Senate would acquit the President and the impeachment process would go out through the same exit that the Russian Collusion and Mueller report went. If the impeachment articles are never delivered to the Senate, then the threat and distraction of impeachment remains and perhaps the public will become more supportive of the move. But in case, as it appears, that the bulk of the American public either do not care about the virtual impeachment, or in fact are more likely to support Trump as a result of this blatant partisan attempt to overturn the democratic process, an exit strategy is needed. That strategy is to make the case that the Senate obstructed the impeachment by not playing by the rules. Can anyone else explain this bizarre behaviour?

Climate Change – business must act

It seems that every Government regulator fears missing the bus. The bus with the giant mantra painted on the side that says ‘Business must address climate change!’ ASIC is the latest. It is reported in today’s press that ASIC will target companies that fail to disclose climate change risks to their shareholders.

I agree with ASIC’s conclusion: business should address climate change risks. Not because I believe that the earth is on a catastrophic path to being uninhabitable (it isn’t) but because of the policies and regulations that I fear weak-kneed right-of-centre governments will introduce. The difference between right-of-centre governments and those of the left is measured in time, not policy. The policies of the left are eventually implemented by the right.

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In search of 5% pa

Are investment returns becoming more elusive? In nominal terms, yes. But in real terms, maybe not so much. Possibly the single largest consequence of the Australian grand social experiment that is compulsory superannuation is that nearly everyone now has to decide how to invest financial assets over a very long term. What was previously the domain of a few is now a national occupation. In the current investment environment, it is an occupation that has lost a lot of its charm.

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Banking governance; or maybe not

I’m an unhappy shareholder of Westpac. There will be a lot of shareholder wealth destroyed before this sorry tale is over.

By way of background, Westpac stands accused by the relevant regulator of failing in its obligations to identify and report suspicious transactions that could indicate money laundering or terrorism financing. In this case, it is alleged that millions of dollars and transactions have been made through the use of Westpac accounts and payments systems to launder money ultimately used to facilitate child exploitation. Further, it is alleged that Westpac has known of these transactions for several years and has not acted.

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Income tax cuts in Australia

There has been a lot of chatter in Australia this week about the cuts to income tax rates passed by Parliament. The cuts are phased in with immediate effect for lower income levels and deferred a number of years for the higher income levels.

While I’m in favour of income tax cuts, like anyone else who pays income tax, we ought to remember that the true tax burden is not represented by the rate of income tax, or any other tax, for that matter. The true tax burden is determined by the level of Government expenditure. The tax regime, the rates, the thresholds, the mix between consumption tax, income tax, royalties, stamp duties, corporate tax etc is the outcome of a political process that determines who will pay for the expenditure and in what time period they will pay. Cutting tax without cutting expenditure simply means someone else can pay for it, at some other time.

We are collectively better off when Government expenditure is cut first, and tax reductions can then follow. None of this is to deny the truism of the Laffer Curve.

Gender quotas and corporate performance

I think quotas of any sort are inherently wrong and likely to be bad for corporate performance. In recent times, many of those in favour of quotas have shifted their claims from “quotas are necessary to treat under-represented groups fairly”, to “quotas are good for business performance.” It is not easy to prove or disprove such claims.

Conceptually, the skills needed to perform well in business are not held in exclusively in the domain of any particular group of people. Those skills are held by all different sorts of people. And plenty of people do not have the necessary skills. Consequently, the best corporate performance will emerge from the companies with the best collection of people with those skills, regardless of who they are or where they came from.

Adding a degree of empirical research to the debate, the authors of a study conducted in Norway and published last month (accessible here), considered corporate performance controlling for gender composition of the board. Among the conclusions was this:

“Analyzing the causal effects of the Norwegian gender-balancing quota, we find the quota significantly increases the share of women directors on the boards of treated firms. Further, we find the quota significantly adversely affects the performance of treated firms and firm risk is significantly reduced.”

That is, if the law imposes quotas on gender balance, gender balance will improve. (No surprises there.) Also, firm risk reduces. Finally, corporate performance is significantly adversely affected.

Corporate performance changes as a result of gender quotas. Lower performance and lower risk is not the same as improved performance with no increase in risk.

Modern offices

It is interesting visiting corporate offices these days and comparing them to how they were like 20 years ago.

Many physical buildings were designed and built at least 20 years ago but are now occupied by today’s trends. This means, the building no longer suits the way corporations want to use building spaces, but the rational decision is to make do, rather than demolish and rebuild, as long as there is an economic life in the asset.

Grand entrance halls and foyers are now often empty. A single, lonely person may sit at the front desk. Visitor car parks have plenty of empty spaces. Sign-in books can remain on the same page for days. Meeting rooms clustered near the entrance foyer are empty. Continue reading

I wouldn’t be starting from here.

There is an old joke about tourists in Ireland stopping a local in Dublin to ask for directions to Killarney. ‘Well,’ the local replied, ‘if I were going to Killarney, I wouldn’t be starting from here.’

At least those tourists stopped to ask. There has been little obvious evidence that the critics of the Australian superannuation system, and there are many, have stopped to ask themselves what is super’s purpose before criticising it and calling for change in policy. Super policy is easy to criticise when there is no articulated reason for its existence. This vacuum then results in an Alice in Wonderland response – the critic can criticise anything or everything because they make up their own idea of what super is for.

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Directors’ obligations are to shareholders.

The Royal Commission into Misconduct in the banking, superannuation and financial services industry in Australia exposed some notable, and in the circumstances of his position surprising, views of the Chairman of the National Australia Bank. The NAB is one of the country’s biggest publicly listed companies. Its directors, and especially its Chairman, ought to be amongst the very best directors available. Shareholders would have reasonable grounds to believe that they had the best possible governance talent acting in their, the shareholders’, interests.

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