Oil finished at record levels above $US90 a barrel in New York overnight, and over $US91 a barrel in Asia this morning, and the Aussie dollar charged to within sight of 91 US cents, another 23 year high.

If Peter Costello wants a tsunami, the Aussie dollar and high oil prices could ensure he gets what he wants: a nasty mixture of high oil and commodity prices and a currency carving a hole in the earnings of corporate Australia, something that is already worrying more and more big investors.

The high Aussie dollar is putting a bit of a dampener on oil and petrol prices and the price of consumer good, such as LCD TVs, computers and all those own-brand goods imported from China by the big retailers. Qantas and Virgin Blue are benefiting because the high Aussie dollar is clipping the rise in jet fuel costs.

It is, however, putting a big hole in the earnings of Australian exporters (especially rural exporters) and multinationals. Even the likes of BHP Billiton and Rio can’t escape, but their earnings streams and cash flows are in a range of currencies, so there are natural hedges.

The likes of CSL, Cochlear, Amcor, Leighton Holdings, Iluka, Oxiana, Fairfax and the banks are taking a hit, some more than others (Amcor could lose $35 million to the higher dollar; CSL at least $60 million in profits).

Earlier this week, Goldman Sachs JBWere had this to say about current earnings and the dollar:

Our concerns are reinforced by the generally low quality of earnings during the last reporting season (GSJBW Profit Monitor tax rate was around 28%, a 14 year low), combined with operating margins which appear to have peaked.

Downward revisions to our FY07 & FY08 EPS growth forecasts have accelerated over the last 2-3 weeks, mainly around currency adjustments.

(A) key shift since the 30th June has been the continued strength in the AUD which averaged 78.6¢ during FY07. Both Aristocrat and AGL Energy attributed some of their earnings revisions tithe stronger AUD which is now some 12% higher than the FY07 average.

While the currency sensitivity of various stocks has been well published there is nothing like a trading update from a company to reinforce the earnings leverage to investors. The stronger AUD is also occurring at a time of slowing growth in the US economy and increasing input costs (both hard and soft commodities, energy, capital costs) providing a difficult environment for both corporates and analysts to accurately forecast future earnings.

But it’s the reason for this latest rise in the price of oil that ought to worry the Treasurer: Iraq and Iran (plus a weekly fall in US oil stocks).

Turkish military action in northern Iraq has already unsettled the oil market, tougher sanctions on Iran from the Bush Administration overnight helped drive oil up $US3.36 to $US90.46 a barrel. And it touched $US91.10 a barrel in after-hours electronic trading in Asia.

Now, that sounds a sensible move from the PM’s good friend in Washington, doesn’t it? And who can remember Rupert Murdoch’s forecast that the invasion of Iraq would result in oil at $20 a barrel? It seems so long ago.

So it’s no wonder the Aussie dollar last night shook off its bout of the vapours from earlier in the week and bounced to 90.91 US before easing to just under that level.

We are a commodity exporter: copper prices were also higher overnight. That China boom the Treasurer reckons will disappear was partly responsible as the country’s copper consumers lifted imports. When this happens, the dollar rises.

And interest rates: the smarties in the markets know they can make easy money investing in Aussie dollar assets and waiting for a rate rise next month or in December. One is going to come; it’s only the timing the Treasurer is really upset about.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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