News That’s Fit To Punt – 01/Feb/2012

Citizen Rinehart

The richest woman in Australia, Gina Rinehart has set her mind on buying into Fairfax, the company that owns the Sydney Morning Herald, and the Age, amongst other mastheads. The response coming out of the Fairfax stables has been interesting.

Here’s Michael West:

The Murdoch press is already favourably disposed to the Minerals Council view of the world while Rinehart’s politics are said to be strenuously ideological in the fashion of her late father Lang Hancock. Rinehart control of the Fairfax mastheads could have a dramatic influence on politics in this country.
Any tussle, then, for the venerable Fairfax mastheads would entail not just economic considerations, but community and political issues too. These issues would play into the hands of the institutional shareholders who would no doubt demand recompense for parting with the major mastheads and the effect this could have on the attendant Fairfax transactional businesses, which feed off the enormous online traffic.

Apart from matters of price, then, there would be much focus on the likely direction of Fairfax editorial. And some ideas from Lang Hancock in his book, Wake Up Australia, provide some hints, such as how “we can change the situation so as to limit the power of government”.

“It could be broken by obtaining control of the media and then educating the public,” he wrote.

There were several ideas on how to gain control of the press. One was for Australian retailers to refuse “to give advertisements to any paper which did not support a change in the constitution to reduce government to an absolute minimum”.

“Control of the press could also be obtained by several of the big mining groups banding together with a view to taking over one or more of the present giant newspaper chains which control the TV and radio channels, and converting them to the path of ‘free enterprise’,” he said.

That’s pretty sobering. the SMH might be transformed into a broadsheet with even sillier, shallower, more fascist tendencies than a Murdoch rag. I think it would be the end of public discourse in Sydney.

Here’s a link to what politicians think:

Political reaction to the news of mining billionaire Gina Rinehart’s increased stake in Fairfax Media has been mixed with Opposition treasury spokesman Joe Hockey saying he is “comfortable” with the move.

But the Australian Greens have described the trend towards a handful of individuals owning swathes of the media as “dangerous”.

Communications spokesman Scott Ludlam says concentrated media ownership by individuals means Australia is unhealthy for democracy.

Senator Ludlam says the national laws against concentration of ownership in the media are now far too weak after being “gutted by the Howard government”.

The Greens Senator claimed Ms Rinehart has “indicated a desire to have more influence over national affairs” and that she had “campaigned against Labor’s mining tax to protect her own commercial interests.”

Interesting how Joe Hockey is merely comfortable. You’d think he’d jump up and down with joy at the thought that a right wing nutjob is trying to seize editorial control of the SMH.

For the record, this is Gina Rinehart’s view on several subjects:

Mining tax:
“[The Minerals Resource Rent tax] damages investor confidence and renders formally attractive and value-adding projects less viable”.
“One of the issues that needs to be tackled is the cost, risk and time lost on approvals, permits and licences before revenue can be earned, [which] has very greatly increased in Australia, making it almost impossible for small companies to carry and comply with such burdens,” Mrs Rinehart said.
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“If our costs get out of kilter through excessive taxation or excessive regulation on top of our other high costs we already have, this is just making it more difficult.”
Carbon tax:
“We must drop these taxes or we risk the bureaucracy becoming the only growth industry in Australia.”
“After this unnecessary shock to investment and exploration the carbon tax (and MRRT) is causing, we should also demand from our politicians that they introduce legislation that requires a majority by referendum before they can introduce any new taxes or tax increases.”

God help us all from this woman’s political views.

Anyway, I note all this because it was interesting how the SMH kept spitting out bits and pieces about Rinehart today as the story unfolded. It ain’t over ’til the fat lady sings and at the moment she’s busy buying up shares.

Between An Angry Devil And A Poison Deep Blue Sea

It just gets worse and worse over in Greece and by extension, Europe.

All leaders of the euro zone are insisting that forcing private creditors to take a hit on Greek bonds constitutes a “unique” event, for fear of causing contagion. But spreads on Portuguese bonds are rising to alarming levels, and the outlook for Italy and Spain is still wobbly.

“An inability to tackle a problem the size of Greece inspires little confidence in the ability of the EU to tackle Italy and Spain,” says Sony Kapoor, head of Re-Define, a financial think-tank in Brussels.

Germany parried demands, from Mr Monti and others, to enlarge the firewall by merging the existing temporary European Financial Stability Facility (EFSF) and the permanent new European Stability Mechanism (ESM). This would enlarge the fund from €500 billion ($659 billion) to €750 billion. Mrs Merkel said the matter should be discussed in March, as decided in last December’s summit.

March, says Angela Merkel. The Economist suggests the investors should take more losses.

What is the best way out of this mess? Step one is to force private bondholders to take more losses. They have been treated with kid gloves so far because European governments insist the debt deal must be voluntary, thanks in part to a misplaced fear of triggering credit-default swaps. That must change. Discard the veneer of voluntarism and Greece can be tougher on its creditors. It should pass a law that retroactively introduces collective-action clauses into all domestic-debt contracts (making it easier to impose debt deals on recalcitrant bondholders). If it does this now there is still, just, enough time to organise a big, coercive, but orderly, restructuring of Greek bonds by March 20th.

So mark that date down as the date hell will break loose on the markets again. 20th March.

While I’m at it I think it’s worth linking to this little thing from Boris Johnson.

Now in the old days, before the euro, there was a simple solution that allowed the Italians to keep producing cars of the same quality and to keep unit costs down. It was devaluation, and if you look at the postwar career of the lira (and just about every European currency) against the Deutschmark, you can see how it worked. As the mark appreciated, it was more expensive for Italians to buy a German car; and as the Italian currency fell, Italian cars remained a good buy in Germany. The tragedy now is that this option is closed off for the euro-zone members – and look at the Italian car industry.

Manufacturers can no longer use the lira to compete on price, and they are being utterly stuffed. Italian car sales fell 15.3 per cent in December, while sales of German cars grew 8.8 per cent. The Italians now produce fewer cars than the British do, and their markets are being relentlessly gobbled by Audis and Beemers and other beautifully engineered machines from Germany.

It is worth pointing out again that the Germans get a great deal out of the Euro for being the Euro in that it lowers the prices of their exports significantly; which is exactly why Angela Merkel is running around trying to save the Euro because the Germans stand to lose a lot if and when the Euro breaks up and they have to reissue the Deutsche Mark, and it appreciates like the Yen and suddenly nobody on the planet can afford German products except “the 1%”. It might be cheaper to buy all of Greece than to keep haggling over its debt.

Property Bubble Babble

I know this blog has gone in weird directions at time in pursuit of interesting tidbits to do with the GFC, and I have to say one of the weirder aspects of the GFC has been the sustained property bubble in Australia. It’s so weird, people are used to this bubble but as I pointed out yesterday, there’s no real reason for Australia’s real estate to be so much more pricier than other parts of the world. yes, it’s really nice here in parts, but so are Greek Island Villas that come in cheaper than some flats in long-established suburbs in Sydney.

Anyway, I got this link from Skarp today which points out 4 reasons why there is a bubble going on, tangential to what the other fellow Professor Steve Keene says. Embedded in it is this link here, which is sort of prequel to the other link. The take away message is that it wasn’t the non-recourse lending in America that led to the subprime problem, it was the extreme lending. Housing prices don’t always go up, and in the long view of history, any tie that it does is an anomaly. There is no housing shortage as claimed by the peak bodies, and Australian banks have not lent conservatively as claimed, which feeds back into the recourse lending argument.

I do want  to point to this bit:

Rational discussion about the state of the property market is fraught. Many outspoken bubble deniers are conflicted by their interests in industry and government. Many – not all – are employed by, consult for, manage, and/or own organisations with a direct interest in maintaining the status quo of an overvalued property (land) market. These institutions are primarily commercial lenders, investment banks, real estate intelligence firms, insurance, real estate agents, Treasury, the RBA, vote-seeking politicians, and the mass media.

Skilled and intelligent specialists, trained in neoclassical economics in leading US institutions, did not see their enormous housing bubble until it burst in front of them with horrendous consequences. What makes Australia’s “experts” any more competent?

As investor Jeremy Grantham has noted: “Bubbles have quite a few things in common but housing bubbles have a spectacular thing in common, and that is every one of them is considered unique and different.”

All this is to say it’s worth looking at the Australian housing market with a good deal of scepticism. Even if prices don’t collapse, it’s hard to make a case that it’s going to keep going up. If I were an investor, I’d be looking at another asset class.

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