Tuesday, July 18, 2017

Reserve Bank softens up borrowers for "neutral" cash rate of 3.5 pc; A$ surges

The Reserve Bank is continuing its campaign to soften up highly leveraged borrowers for eventual interest rate rises after a long period at record low levels.

The central bank is now busy estimating what a "neutral" interest rate might look like as the Australian economy continues to show patchy signs of recent strength.

In the minutes from its July meeting a fortnight ago when rates were left on hold at 1.5 percent, the RBA has signalled that to keep growth and inflation in check the "neutral nominal cash rate" would need to rise to around 3.5 percent.

The minutes show the RBA's pursuit for a "goldilocks rate" - not too high or too low - comes as as central banks around the world such as the US Federal Reserve signal conditions are right to slowly raise rates from emergency levels.

The predictions for a higher cash rate will put investor and residential borrowers on alert given high levels of loans issued at the record low cash rate.

"All estimates of the neutral real interest rate for Australia suggested that monetary policy had been expansionary for the previous five years or so," the minutes say.

"A reduction in risk aversion and/or increase in the potential growth rate could see the neutral real interest rate rise again.

"A number of central banks had become more positive about domestic economic conditions, and financial market pricing suggested that there had been upward revisions to the expected path of future monetary policy."

The RBA noted that despite slower economic growth in the March quarter, key indicators such as the labour market, wages growth and retails sales had been gradually improving in Australia.

Although the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority (APRA) has been cracking down on banks to maintain a cap on investor loans, the RBA says it is too early to assess their full effect.

While the July meeting was held before the recent resurgence of the Australian dollar, the minutes show the economy remains exposed to any spike against the US currency.

"The depreciation of the exchange rate since 2013 has assisted the economy in the transition from the mining boom," the minutes say.

"An appreciating exchange rate would complicate this adjustment."

Reserve Bank members are also concerned about rising wholesale electricity prices in the first half of 2017.

"This has led to significant increases in the context of efforts to address climate change and to alter Australia's energy mix," the minutes say.

"Concerns about energy security , reliability and costs has been heightened .. partly reflecting policy uncertainty."

Despite the RBA's efforts to manage expectations, concerns remain that anything but a gradual increase would leave indebted borrowers in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane potentially exposed to rising repayments.


Monday, July 17, 2017

No real winners in Amber Harrison ruling

There are no real winners from Amber Harrison's high cost, high stakes, circus-like legal battle with the powerful Seven Network.

While Ms Harrison is no unblemished innocent party in this saga, the former executive assistant limps away potentially financially broken and perhaps unemployable at least in the short term.

Here's my report on the ruling broadcast on the ABC's PM program

Justice John Sackar may have ruled in Seven's favour ordering Ms Harrison to pay their costs but will Seven risk the public perception of pushing of a confused single foster mother into bankruptcy in the face of paying Seven's legal bills?

Despite playing a hard and at times brutal game, the ABC understands that given the reputational damage already inflicted by the case, Seven is unlikely to pursue costs against Ms Harrison now having won the legal argument.

The challenge for Ms Harrison's ex lover, Seven West Media chief executive Tim Worner, is to move on from the scandal to recast Seven's image as a caring and compassionate media company with respect for women at all levels.

But as Justice Sackar observed in his ruling, there is no dispute that Ms Harrison brought much of the pain upon herself after breaching the terms of confidentiality agreements in return for payments of around $400,000 which prompted Seven to seek gag orders earlier this year.

At the same time Tim Worner - whose affair with Ms Harrison was consensual - is rebuilding a shattered reputation and remains on Seven's payroll despite calls for his sacking or resignation amid questions about his judgement.

Some company boards or government agencies may well have sacked or sidelined Mr Worner but he survives mainly thanks to the steadfast backing of Seven chairman Kerry Stokes who clearly regards him as a flawed prodigal son.

Seven West shareholders also have cause for concern about Mr Worner's judgement given the direction of Seven West's share price which had fallen to 79 cents from around $1.18 a year ago.

While the Amber Harrison affair is only a small factor in the share price demise, the unwanted headlines and uncertainty about Seven's direction have been the top agenda items for the Seven West board.

Mr Kennett said he was not speaking on behalf of Kerry Stokes or the Seven West board but his aggressive commentary the next morning on the ABC's AM  program came hours before a Seven West Media results briefing where Kerry Stokes came under heavy questioning for his handling of the Amber Harrison matter.

Mr Kennett's abrasive style in slapping down a fragile Ms Harrison also attracted criticism given his role at the time as chairman of the depression initiative Beyond Blue.

All of the above is evidence that Seven needed to shut Ms Harrison down as the damaging case dragged on in the NSW Supreme Court and briefly in the Federal Court when star barrister Julian Burnside QC was enlisted to defend Ms Harrison.

Evidence was tendered to the NSW Supreme Court that Ms Harrison continued to brief journalists despite the confidentiality agreement and released highly sensitive documents unrelated to her affair with Tim Worner after a 2014 raid by the Australian Federal Police over alleged payments to convicted drug trafficker Schapelle Corby.

Seven’s strategy and tactics led by the network's hardplaying commercial director Bruce McWilliam have been brutal in exposing Ms Harrison's pursuit of revenge against Mr Worner.

Seven's payout to Ms Harrison and her decision to break confidentiality agreements has clearly infuriated Seven hence the warlike response to bring Ms Harrison into line.

But given Ms Harrison's decision to release her lawyers and walk away from the case, should Seven have done the same and called off the legal dogs?

The demolition of Amber Harrison - once again, who brought this action upon herself - comes as other parts of corporate Australia assess their policies especially after two senior managers at the AFL were stood down late last week for inappropriate relationships with young female colleagues.

Tim Worner has already apologised but he need to put his words into action to ensure that his mistakes are not repeated and that similar errors will not be tolerated at Seven.

As Australian Financial Review senior writer Aaron Patrick told me: "Kerry Stokes will not want Seven West Media and the Seven Network dragged through the mud again."

"I think they will not want any of their executives sleeping with secretaries ever again."