Category archive: Markets

Climate Change Is A Financial Risk, According to A Lawsuit Against the CBA

Anita Foerster, University of Melbourne and Jacqueline Peel, University of Melbourne

The Commonwealth Bank of Australia has been in the headlines lately for all the wrong reasons. Beyond money-laundering allegations and the announcement that CEO Ian Narev will retire early, the CBA is now also being sued in the Australian Federal Court for misleading shareholders over the risks climate change poses to their business interests.

This case is the first in the world to pursue a bank over failing to report climate change risks. However, it’s building on a trend of similar actions against energy companies in the United States and United Kingdom.


Read more: Why badly behaving bankers will never fear jail time


The CBA case was filed on August 8, 2017 by advocacy group Environmental Justice Australia on behalf of two longstanding Commonwealth Bank shareholders. The case argues that climate change creates material financial risks to the bank, its business and customers, and they failed in their duty to disclose those risks to investors.

This represents an important shift. Conventionally, climate change has been treated by reporting companies merely as a matter of corporate social responsibility; now it’s affecting the financial bottom line.

What do banks need to disclose?

When banks invest in projects or lend money to businesses, they have an obligation to investigate and report to shareholders potential problems that may prevent financial success. (Opening a resort in a war zone, for example, is not an attractive proposition.)

However, banks may now have to take into account the risks posed by climate change. Australia’s top four banks are heavily involved in fossil-fuel intensive projects, but as the world moves towards renewable energy those projects may begin to look dubious.


Read more: How companies are getting smart about climate change


As the G20’s Taskforce on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures recently reported, climate risks can be physical (for instance, when extreme weather events affect property or business operations) or transition risks (the effect of new laws and policies designed to mitigate climate change, or market changes as economies transition to renewable and low-emission technology).

For example, restrictions on coal mining may result in these assets being “stranded,” meaning they become liabilities rather than assets on company balance sheets. Similarly, the rise of renewable energy may reduce the life span, and consequently the value, of conventional power generation assets.

Companies who rely on the exploitation of fossil fuels face increasing transition risks. So too do the banks that lend money to, and invest in, these projects. It is these types of risks that are at issue in the case against CBA.

What did the CBA know about climate risk?

The claim filed by the CBA shareholders alleges the bank has contravened two central provisions of the Corporations Act 2001:

  • companies must include a financial report within the annual report which gives a “true and fair” view of its financial position and performance, and
  • companies must include a director’s report that allows shareholders to make an “informed assessment” of the company’s operations, financial position, business strategies and prospects.

The shareholders argue that the CBA knew – or ought to have known – that climate-related risks could seriously disrupt the bank’s performance. Therefore, investors should have been told the CBA’s strategies for managing those risks so they could make an informed decision about their investment.


Read more: We need a Royal Commission into the banks


The claim also zeros in on the lengthy speculation over whether the CBA would finance the controversial Adani Carmichael coal mine in Queensland. (The bank has since ruled out financing the mine.) The shareholders assert that the resulting “controversy and concern” was a major risk to the CBA’s business.

Global litigation trends

While the CBA case represents the first time worldwide that a financial institution has been sued for misleading disclosure of climate risk, the litigation builds on a broader global trend. There have been a number of recent legal actions in the United States, seeking to enforce corporate risk disclosure obligations in relation to climate change:

Energy giant Exxon Mobile is currently under investigation by the Attorneys General of New York and California over the company’s disclosure practices. At the same time, an ongoing shareholder class action alleges that Exxon Mobile failed to disclose internal reports about the risks climate change posed to their oil and gas reserves, and valued those assets artificially high.

Similar pathways are being pursued in the UK, where regulatory complaints have been made about the failure of major oil and gas companies SOCO International and Cairn Energy to disclose climate-related risks, as required by law.

In this context, the CBA case represents a widening of litigation options to include banks, as well as energy companies. It is also the first attempt in Australia to use the courts to clarify how public listed companies should disclose climate risks in their annual reports.

Potential for more litigation

This global trend suggests more companies are likely to face these kinds of lawsuits in the future. Eminent barrister Noel Hutley noted in October 2016 that many prominent Australian companies, including banks that lend to major fossil fuel businesses, are not adequately disclosing climate change risks.

The ConversationHutley predicted that it’s likely only a matter of time before we see a company director sued for failing to perceive or react to a forseeable climate-related risk. The CBA case is the first step towards such litigation.

Anita Foerster, Senior Research Fellow, University of Melbourne and Jacqueline Peel, Professor of Environmental and Climate Law, University of Melbourne

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Australians Increasingly Under Financial Stress, Report Finds

Concerns over rising costs of necessities, stagnant income growth and prospects of increased loan rates are stressing Australian households, a survey has found.

The latest ME Household Financial Comfort Report, which surveyed 1,500 Australian households, revealed that concerns over budget balancing are increasing, as 51 per cent are found to have no spare cash at the end of each month. Rising costs of groceries, fuel and utilities have been blamed, along with weak salary growth and rising underemployment.

“Australian households are under financial stress,” said ME Bank consulting economist Jeff Oughton to ABC’s AM. “They’re concerned about the rising cost of bills but also there are income woes, interest rates are starting to rise and there’s mortgage and rental stress.”

While the unemployment rate has gone down, underemployment is still strong, with 27 per cent of casual and part-time workers saying they were eager to increase their hours.

Furthermore, 68 per cent of the respondents reported wage fall or stagnation in the past 12 months, and 40 per cent of households in debt are becoming less confident about their ability to repay their mortgage.

RBA’s eventual plan to lift the cash rate is also expected to worsen this burden on Australians “as it will impact monthly cash flows, ability to pay off debts, save and spend”, Oughton said. “It will bite into those young couples with children, single parents and also generation X-ers who are concerned about the impact on their monthly cash flows from rising rates.”

IMF Downgrades US Economy Forecast

The International Monetary Fund has downgraded its growth forecast for the US’ economic growth on concerns over Donald Trump presidency’s ability to make policy changes.

The IMF revised down its US gross domestic product growth predictions from 2.3 per cent to 2.1 per cent, while its global economic forecast remains unchanged at 3.5 per cent growth in 2017 and 3.6 per cent in 2018.

The organization said it downgraded US forecast based on “the assumption that fiscal policy will be less expansionary than previously assumed, given the uncertainty about the timing and nature of US fiscal policy changes”.

President Trump came into office after promising increased infrastructure spending and limited taxes and regulations. However, these policies has remained stalled as the administration focuses on other matters such as healthcare regulation and disagreement within the Republican party.

The IMF also downgraded growth forecast for the UK from 2 per cent to 1.7 per cent, due to “weaker-than-expected activity” for the first three months of 2017 following Brexit.

China’s Economic Growth Beats Expectations

China’s economy has grown faster than expected in the second quarter, thanks to robust exports and strong domestic consumption.

The country’s gross domestic product maintained its 6.9 per cent annual growth rate from the first quarter, according to the data from the National Bureau of Statistics released Monday. It outpaced analysts’ forecast of 6.8 per cent, and helped the country on its track to 6.5 per cent growth target in 2017.

Solid production output and exports along with increasing retail sales helped drive the growth, according to a Reuters calculation.

“Overall, the economy continued to show steady progress in the first half … but international instability and uncertainties are still relatively large, and the domestic long-term buildup of structural imbalances remain,” the Bureau said in a statement.

Australians Are Working Longer So They Can Pay Off Their Mortgage Debt

Rachel Ong, Curtin University; Gavin Wood, RMIT University; Kadir Atalay, University of Sydney, and Melek Cigdem-Bayram, RMIT University

Rising mortgage debt is affecting everything from employment to spending, as Australians approach retirement, our study finds. Higher levels of housing debt among pre-retirees are linked to them working for longer.

We found for a home owner aged 45-64 years, the chances of being employed are around 40% higher for every additional A$100,000 in mortgage debt owed against the family home.

There’s also a link between house price changes and household spending. For every A$100,000 increase in the value of a person’s house, annual household spending of home owners increased by around A$1,500. These home owners are willing to increase their spending because they’re able to borrow more against their home to finance it.

Long-run trends in mortgage debt

Australians are paying down their mortgages later in life. The percentage of home owners aged 25 years or over who are carrying a mortgage debt climbed from 42% to 56% between 1990 and 2013.

Mortgage debt burdens among pre-retirees have soared. For home owners aged 45-54 years, the incidence of mortgage debt has nearly doubled from 36% to 71%. Among those aged 55-64 years, this incidence has more than tripled from 14% to 44%.

These trends reflect at least two things. Higher housing cost burdens have resulted in a decline in home ownership rates among young people. Those able to access home ownership are doing so later in life and by taking on higher levels of debt relative to their incomes.

Flexible mortgage products also now allow home owners to unlock wealth stored in the family home whenever required, and not just their retirement years.

Higher mortgage debts, longer working lives

Australians are working longer because they are paying down their mortgages later in life.

Our modelling, based on the 2001-2010 Household, Income and Labour Dynamics in Australia (HILDA) survey data, shows that pre-retirees aged 55-64 years are 18% more likely to continue working for every A$100,000 increase in their mortgage debt.

On the one hand, unexpected increases in housing prices could have caused buyers considering home ownership to borrow more in order to buy a house, and encouraged homeowners to spend more by withdrawing the equity from their homes. These mortgagors then have to extend their working lives to meet higher mortgage repayments.

On the other hand, longer life expectancy may have encouraged many Australians to plan longer working lives. Carrying higher levels of mortgage debt later in life could be a financial tactic to finance their spending over a longer lifespan.

Borrowing more, spending more?

Our analysis found some differences between subgroups of home owners and between periods preceding and following the global financial crisis.

Before the global financial crisis highly indebted home buyers were more prepared to use their mortgages in order to bridge the gap between spending plans and income. After the crisis, home buyers with large mortgages were less willing to use their mortgages in this way.

In contrast, the spending plans of indebted households who both own their home and a second investment property seem more sensitive to house price movements since the global financial crisis. Property investors with mortgage debt increased their average yearly spending after the crisis from A$1,700 to over A$2,800 for every A$100,000 increase in their housing wealth.

On the other hand, for home owners with no investment properties, average yearly spending tightened from A$1,700 to A$1,500 for every A$100,000 increase in their housing wealth. This suggests investors with debt are not so risk-averse as other homeowners.

Housing, productivity and the economy

Mortgage debts have important economy-wide effects through interactions with labour markets and consumer spending.

Ageing is often associated with lower rates of labour force participation and declining physical and mental health, which can result in reduced productivity growth. If people are extending their working lives to repay higher mortgage debt, this could mitigate some of the productivity consequences of population ageing, albeit at the expense of greater exposure to debt in later life.

When real house values are rising, home owners and property investors are able to borrow more against their home to finance their spending. In the short run this can help offset the effect of stagnant wages (on their spending) and thereby sustain growth momentum in the economy.

But if wages fail to pick up, these higher levels of debt can be a drag on growth. High levels of indebtedness also increase exposure to house price and interest rate risk, and pose a threat to macroeconomic stability.

The ConversationOur research makes a compelling case for considering housing differently, as essential economic infrastructure. Housing needs to be re-positioned from the periphery to a central place within national economic policy debates. This could be crucial to an understanding of how our housing system can promote rather than curb economic growth in Australia.

Rachel Ong, Deputy Director, Bankwest Curtin Economics Centre, Curtin University; Gavin Wood, Emeritus Professor of Housing and Housing Studies, RMIT University; Kadir Atalay, Senior Lecturer in Economics, University of Sydney, and Melek Cigdem-Bayram, Research Fellow, RMIT University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

News: Reserve Bank Puts Interest Rates On Hold at 1.5 Per Cent

The Reserve Bank has left the official interest rates on hold at a record low of 1.5 per cent.

The bank board last changed the rates in August, cutting them by 25 basis points.

While business investment and employment numbers have improved, the bank board still maintained its conservative approach to rate setting.

“The various forward-looking indicators point to continued growth in employment over the period ahead,” said Philip Lowe, the bank’s governor.

“Wage growth remains low, however, and this is likely to continue for a while yet. Inflation is expected to increase gradually as the economy strengthens.”

Housing debt remains a major concern for the RBA. “Growth in housing debt has outpaced the slow growth in household incomes,” the bank stated. “The recent supervisory measures should help address the risks associated with high and rising levels of household indebtedness.”

However, there are some positive outlooks. “In some other markets, prices are declining. In the eastern capital cities, a considerable additional supply of apartments is scheduled to come on stream over the next couple of years. Rent increases are the slowest for two decades.”

News: Business Conditions Remain Strong Despite Fall in Confidence, NAB Says

Australia’s businesses reported strong conditions despite declining confidence, the National Australia Bank’s (NAB) May business survey found.

The survey, containing responses from more than 400 firms, showed a slight ease in conditions – encompassing trading, profitability and employment – with one index point decline to +12. The drop was attributed to the sluggish construction, finance, property and business services. Despite the fall, it is still well above the average of +5.

“The business sector is looking quite upbeat, maintaining the apparent disconnect with a rather melancholy household sector,” said Alan Oster, chief economist at the NAB. “It is good to see that the strength has been quite broad-based, and even at the state level we have seen some significant improvements in Western Australia, which signals that the worst of the mining sector drag is probably behind us.”

Oster also predicted improvements in profitability and employment. “Profitability has remained elevated for some time now, backed up by solid profit outcomes in the first quarter National Accounts,” Oster said.

“Similarly, the current level of employment conditions is consistent with the recent improvements in ABS employment growth. That has helped to close the previous departure between the NAB and ABS measures of employment, while the NAB index suggests that we can expect more solid employment growth to continue over coming months.”

However, the survey also found a fall in confidence from +13 to +7, two points above the long-run average.

“The wedge between confidence and conditions is likely a reflection of the heightened uncertainty around the outlook, although the degree to which this reflects global versus domestic factors is difficult to gauge,” the bank said.

The bank said economic growth is expected to rise for the second half of the year, but the longer term outlook may not be as positive. “Significant structural headwinds still pose a hurdle that will prove difficult to overcome, keeping wages growth subdued and consumers cautious with their spending,” said Oster.

“The longer-term outlook could be less sanguine as important growth drivers (LNG exports, commodity prices and housing construction) begin to fade.”

News: Sunday Penalty Rate Cuts to be Phased In Over Four Years

The Sunday penalty rate cuts will be phased in over the next four years in a move that angered both employers and unions.

The Fair Work Commission ruled that the reductions to existing penalty rates for fast food, hospitality, retail and pharmacy employees will not take full implementation until 2019-2020.

Fast food and hospitality workers will have Sunday penalty rates cut by 5 per cent next month, and 10 per cent in 2018 and 2019. Their final penalty rate cuts will be 125 per cent and 150 per cent respectively.

Retail and pharmacy workers will take a 5 per cent cut this year, and a further 15 per cent every year until 2020. Their penalty rate cuts will be reduced from 200 per cent to 150 per cent.

Unions argue that the pay cut would devastate workers who sacrificed their weekends to earn money. “I think no matter which way you dress it up, you’re facing pay cuts every single year,” said Australian Council of Trade Unions secretary Sally McManus. “Australian workers are already suffering as a result of stagnant wage growth… They can’t afford a $1.42 billion wage cut.”

On the other hand, employers believe the reductions should be phased in two years instead of four. “Retailers need a break and they need it now,” said National Retail Association chief Dominique Lamb.

Russell Zimmerman, head of the Australian Retailers’ Association, also said the long phase-in period prevents businesses from employing more staff. “What this will do is create an incredible amount of extra work for retailers, who won’t be able to employ more people as quickly as they would like,” he said.

Employment Minister Michaelia Cash said the decision showed the commission’s impartiality. “Nobody got exactly what they wanted. The unions wanted it set aside, employer groups wanted a speedier transition process,” Cash said. “What this does now is give certainty.”

Nevertheless, Cash insisted that the cuts are helpful for small business while impacting only three to four per cent of Australia’s workforce. “The adjustments to Sunday penalty rates will even the playing field for Australia’s small businesses, which have to pay more for staff on Sundays than big businesses who do deals with big unions,” Cash said. “This will help thousands of small businesses open their doors, serve customers and create jobs on Sundays.”

FactCheck Q&A: Does Australia Have One of the Highest Progressive Tax Rates in the Developed World?

Kathrin Bain, UNSW

The Conversation fact-checks claims made on Q&A, broadcast Mondays on the ABC at 9:35pm. Thank you to everyone who sent us quotes for checking via Twitter using hashtags #FactCheck and #QandA, on Facebook or by email. The Conversation


Excerpt from Q&A, May 15, 2017. Quote begins at 0.50.

Look, we just need to keep in mind that we have one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world at the moment. – Innes Willox, chief executive of the Australian Industry Group, speaking on Q&A, May 15, 2017.

When Q&A host Tony Jones asked if wealthy people should pay more tax, the AiGroup’s Innes Willox said that Australia already has one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world.

Is that true?

Checking the source

When asked for sources to support Innes Willox’s statement, a spokesman for the AiGroup clarified that Willox was referring to top marginal tax rates.

The spokesman referred The Conversation to OECD tax statistics, and two charts built using that data, saying that:

This shows that Australia has a relatively high top marginal tax rate (49%) but not the highest among OECD countries (Sweden is top, at 60%). The rub is that our top marginal rate cuts in at a relatively lower level of income than most other OECD countries (2.2 times our average wage).

You can read his full response and see those charts here.

Is it true? Not exactly

Looking at OECD data, Australia’s highest marginal tax rate is higher than the OECD median. Out of the 34 OECD member countries in this data set, Australia ranks 13th for the top marginal rate of tax, meaning 12 countries have a higher top marginal rate, and 21 countries have a lower top marginal rate.

However, a straight comparison like this can be misleading. More than half (19) of the OECD countries impose “social security contributions”. The OECD defines social security contributions as “compulsory payments that confer an entitlement to receive a (contingent) future social benefit”. It notes that they “clearly resemble taxes” and “better comparability between countries is obtained by treating social security contributions as taxes”.

When social security contributions are taken into account, Australia’s “ranking” in terms of top marginal rate of tax drops to 16 out of the 34 OECD member countries – making it still higher than the OECD median top marginal rate, but not by much.

The other point noted by the AiGroup spokesman was that Australia’s top marginal tax rate applies at a relatively low level of income compared to most other OECD countries.

Australia’s highest marginal tax rate applies to taxable income above A$180,000, approximately 2.2 times Australia’s average wage. The AiGroup spokesman was right to say this is relatively low, with the majority of OECD countries (20 out of 34) applying their highest marginal tax rate at income levels higher than Australia (that is, at income levels higher than 2.2 times the average wage).

However, it is worth noting that based on the latest Australian Taxation Office statistics, for the 2014-15 tax year, only 3% of individual taxpayers fell into the highest tax bracket.

Where Australia does rank amongst the highest in the OECD is the percentage of total tax revenue that is derived from individual income taxation.

In 2014, 41% of Australia’s taxation revenue came from income taxation on individuals. This is the second highest in the OECD (the highest being Denmark at 54%) and significantly higher than the OECD average of 24%.

Verdict

The statement made by Innes Willox that “Australia has one of the highest progressive tax rates in the developed world at the moment” is an exaggeration.

Australia ranks 13th in the OECD for the top marginal rate of tax, and 16th if social security contributions are taken into account.

However, Australia does rely more heavily on personal income tax (when compared to other taxes) than all but one other OECD country. – Kathrin Bain


Review

I agree that the statement is an exaggeration. 13th out of 34 is higher than the median, but it would be equally true to say that more than one-third of the OECD countries have a higher personal marginal tax rate than Australia.

It is always problematic to try to compare tax data across different countries. Although the OECD does try to make the data comparable the differences between tax and welfare systems can lead to misleading comparisons.

It is generally well known that certain Scandinavian countries, such as Sweden and Denmark, have a very high marginal tax rate. However those countries also tend to have a different approach to social and welfare spending. Australia does not have a dedicated social security tax: pensions and income support are paid from general revenue. This structural difference in the tax-transfer systems does limit the comparison.

Australia does have a high reliance on personal income tax, and the top marginal rate is higher than the median OECD level. Although the top marginal rate is relatively low at 2.2 times the median wage, the fact that only 3% of the population are in the top bracket says that we, in fact, have a relatively flat tax structure, with most taxpayers in lower tax brackets. – Helen Hodgson


Kathrin Bain, Lecturer, School of Taxation & Business Law, UNSW

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

News: Rising House Prices Put Pressure on Sydney and Hobart Renters

Increasing house prices in Australia are putting pressures on renters as rental affordability in Sydney reached a record low.

The latest report from Rental Affordability Index found that despite the stability in some parts of the country, low- and moderate-income households are still largely priced out of all metro markets.

Sydney and Hobart are found to be the most expensive cities for renters while Melbourne and Perth are the most affordable. Sydney renters spend an average of 29 per cent of their household income on accommodation, while those in Hobart spend 28 per cent.

 

City Per cent of household income Six-month trend
Sydney 29 -3.8 per cent
Hobart 28 -5.4 per cent
Adelaide 25 -0.7 per cent
Brisbane 25 -0.3 per cent
Melbourne 24 -0.1 per cent
Perth 21 +6.2 per cent

Source: National Shelter, Community Sector Banking, SGS Economics and Planning

 

“Lots of frustrated renters can’t get into home ownership and they stay in the rental market,” said Adrian Pisarski, executive officer at Australia’s peak housing body National Shelter.

“Those people tend to rent down as low as they can so they can save a deposit to meet the gap in terms of housing purchase, and what that does is displaces lower income households in the rental market.”

The index found that despite the negative conclusions, rental affordability has remained stable in most parts of Australia.

“What we found overall nationally is that rental affordability has not improved, it hasn’t declined overall either, except in Sydney and Hobart, where it is worse than it was six months ago,” Pisarski said.

“For most of the rest of the country [it] is pretty stable, but having said that, rental affordability is very bad across the nation.”

Tenants NSW senior policy officer Ned Crutcher said renters, who made up one-third of households in the state, were largely ignored by the government. “Rents are going up and wages are not. On top of that, renters have very little security of tenancy – they can be kicked out at any time,” he said. “This stuff keeps people awake at night.”