Those “green shoots” everyone is talking about in other economies and at home in the building, housing and retailing sectors don’t seem to be flourishing all that strongly.

In fact, quite a few Australian companies seem to have their hands out for more cash to water whatever shoots they can find. But in the case of Fairfax and the rest of the media, there’s none to water.

In the past month we have seen earnings downgrades from Fairfax, West Australian Newspapers, AWB, APN, Incitec Pivot, Lend Lease, BlueScope and OneSteel and Oil Search and today the Commonwealth Bank and CSR, which also confirmed a rather nasty earnings slump in the year to March. Banks like Westpac, the ANZNAB and Bendigo Bank have also warned shareholders to expect higher bad debts and lower profits in the current half year.

The Budget confirmed the reality of the plunge in corporate tax — everyone of these companies will be paying lower, or no taxes in the coming year.

At the same time the stricken property groups have tumbled into the market, looking for money to rebuild their shattered business models and balance sheets. Last week it was GPT, once a blue chip, now a fallen star after getting involved with the sharp guys at Babcock and Brown. It’s in the process of raising $1.7 billion, after going to the market for $1.6 billion six months ago.

And GPT’s 13.1% shareholder, Stockland, one of the country’s most reputable and strongest property groups, revealed plans to raise up to $2 billion from the market and shareholders: its second injection in 8 months after raising $300 million late last year.

There’s also speculation that the embattled Valad property group will be looking for cash perhaps today or tomorrow after its shares rose mysteriously.

(That seems to be the new tactic — boost share prices to a level where a company can more comfortably raise cash. We saw that with stricken ragtrader Pacific Brands whose shares jumped from 44 cents on April 27 to over 72 cents last week. It then revealed plans on Monday to raise up to $256 million. The shares rose despite two big shareholders, Colonial and 452 Capital, selling millions of shares).

Last week BlueScope, the country’s biggest steelmaker, revealed plans to raise up to $2.1 billion from shareholders in a re-worked loan package from its banks. SP AusNet, the Victorian energy utility, revealed plans to raise $415 million yesterday. And on Monday, Santos put its hand up for $3 billion.

Many of these companies have penalised shareholders by slashing dividends: the pressures on earnings comes from the credit crunch exposing dud loans at the banks with too much debt at companies like Fairfax and the property groups.

The banks aren’t lending: much of the funds raised have been driven by banks monstering companies to raise more capital to reduce debt, improve their interest cover and cut their gearing.

The irony remains that many of the banks that won’t lend more are pressuring companies to raise more capital and fulflling those demands from their funds management arms, such as the CBA’s Colonial, the NAB’s MLC and Westpac’s BT.

Even though some of these groups are zombies, especially in property, with few buyers about, the banks want them to recapitalise, because in the end keeping them on a drip will be a better outcome than pulling the plug and putting them into receivership.

Meanwhile, CSR, the sugar and building materials company, today reported a 17% fall in full-year earnings before interest and taxes due mostly to the building slump (but the first home buyers boom will help improve the outlook). On top of this, asset writedowns and restructuring costs pushed the company to a net loss of $326.5 million. CSR cut its final final dividend to 1.5 cents a share, from 9 cents last year.

The CBA has sliced its final dividend by 25%, jointing Westpac (down 20%), the ANZ and NAB (both around 24%) in penalising shareholders for dud lending and rising bad debts. The CBA’s total dividend for the year to June will be cut by 14%.

Seeing the key bank regulator, APRA, has made commercial property loan exposures of the banks a prudential priority this year, its understandable that the Commonwealth would reveal a tougher approach to bad debts in its quarterly update today.

The CBA said that its bad debt charge for the three months to the end of March would be $630 million. Analysts reckon if bad debts continue at that rate in the present quarter, the bank will face a half year charge of around $1.2 billion. The bank said its unaudited cash earnings for the same period were $1.15 billion. That compares to its interim net profit of $2 billion, which was down 16% on the corresponding half.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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