30/05/2013 - 17:01

Supporting cast in a global game

30/05/2013 - 17:01


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The degree to which we, in Australia, control our economic destiny is exaggerated.

Some people in Perth might imagine they have influence over the business and political decisions that drive the economy in Western Australia, but they are small fry compared with the international giants who have always made the major decisions about this state, and the rest of Australia.

Last week's events are a starter's guide as to how influence really works, with the head of the US Federal Reserve, Ben Bernanke, suggesting it might be time to end the artificial stimulus of that country's economy – a banker's thought bubble that helped knock about $50 billion off the value of companies listed on the Australian stock market.

If Mr Bernanke's suggestion wasn't enough to show where real power and influence lie, then along came US car executive Robert J Graziano, who made the decision to close the Ford Motor Company's Australian car manufacturing business after 88 continuous years of operation, costing 1,200 workers their jobs and almost certainly triggering an avalanche of other closures and more job losses.

Messrs Bernanke and Graziano were making decisions that were in the best interests of either the US government or shareholders in Ford, who are mainly US residents. They might have thought briefly about what's best for Australia, but it's fairly certain they don't even know that WA exists.

In that regard, nothing much has changed since James Stirling sailed up the Swan River in 1829 to claim Australia's western third as a British colony, ensuring that the most influential people in WA for the next 100 years lived in London.

Today, the people of real influence are scattered around the world, partly because international companies have 'discovered' WA as a source of essential raw materials, but also because they are the owners of the capital that pays for the state's mining and oil projects.

That means this part of Australia is the most directly connected to the global economy, and that decisions made by international business and political leaders can have a direct (and immediate) effect here.

After Mr Bernanke (a full-time member of the 'influential' list) and Mr Graziano (a part-timer), there is a long list of heavy hitters who make decisions that can have a major influence on WA. Here are a few of them.

Xi Jinping

Beijing-based president of China. He is the man with his hands on the levers of power in WA's most important customer as it shifts from a construction-focused period of hectic growth to a period of consumption-led growth – with potentially serious consequences for WA's major export industries, including iron ore, alumina and natural gas.

Andrew Mackenzie

Melbourne and London-based chief executive of BHP Billiton, which is undergoing a radical overhaul of its capital investment plans and a change of direction that will favour investors, who do not live here, over new projects that might have been located here.

Sam Walsh

A former Perth resident but now the London-based chief executive of Rio Tinto, the second most important investor in WA resources but a company doing exactly what BHP Billiton is doing, trimming its capital investment budget to shower higher dividends on international investors.

Peter Voser

Soon-to-retire chief executive of Royal Dutch Shell, the major shareholder in Woodside Petroleum and the company with the greatest influence on Woodside's investment decisions, including the abandonment of the proposed onshore Browse gas development.

Julia Gillard

The Canberra and Melbourne-based prime minister who does her best to avoid WA but makes decisions that have a big (and often negative) influence here.

Wayne Swan

Ms Gillard's Canberra and Brisbane-based right-hand man who treats WA as a cash cow, siphoning tax revenue out of the state to prop up other parts of the country that have failed to adjust to international pressures.

George Soros

US-based currency trader and international investor who has been short-selling the Australian dollar, helping drive it down below parity with the US dollar, and encouraging other currency speculators to place big bets against the Australian currency.

Ivan Glasenberg

London and Switzerland-based commodity trader who has rapidly emerged as the world's most important commodity trader and chief executive of the world's third biggest mining company, Glencore Xstrata.

Shinzo Abe

Recently-elected prime minister of Japan (WA's second biggest trading partner) and the man trying to kick-start his country's stalled economy by boosting government spending and, potentially dangerously, raising debt levels, which have had the effect of forcing down the value of yen to encourage export industries.

Klaus Kleinfeld

German-born, US–based chief executive of Alcoa, the big aluminium producer and the company that controls the bulk of WA's alumina industry. Despite depressed prices for aluminium metal, demand for alumina (and its ore, bauxite) remains strong.

The list could include more international political and business leaders, but you probably get the idea. Perth business and political leaders like to believe they dictate events in their home town, but they are really small players in a global game that includes WA because of its resources and exposure to the sea-lanes of the Indian Ocean.

Dollar dilemma

International pressures pushing the dollar down should, in theory, be helping Australian resources stocks, though there is little evidence yet of a sustained bounce in mining company share prices thanks to the falling dollar.

Since May 13, when the investment bank UBS produced a list of stocks it reckoned would benefit from a lower dollar, most mining stocks have continued to fall – with a couple of exceptions.

Grange Resources, the Tasmanian iron ore producer and would-be developer of the Southdown project near Albany, has risen from 17 cents to 20 cents, but nickel miner Western Areas has fallen from $3.12 to $2.96 despite being the first choice as a currency winner by UBS.


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