Vroom, splutter, America: Ford and its mates were crowing that the company topped US car sales last month; it did, but only by including sales of Volvos, which it is selling. And sales of cars to rental fleets jumped 74% (they are often made at little or no profit), leaving car sales to ordinary Americans up 28% from depressed February 2009. That’s hardly a stunning rebound; February 2009 was the worst month for US car sales in nearly 30 years. Still it did better than GM, (up 12% from a year ago, but down on January); Toyota (down 9% in the month). Nissan and Honda all reported increases on a year ago, but at less the forecast rate. Hyundai reported an 11% rise in sales, but that was half the forecast increase. Some companies blamed the snow storms. Sales were about an annual 10.3 million units, compared with the depressed 9.1 million in February 2009, and the 16.8 million annual rate for the 10 years to 2007.

Vroom, splutter Europe: On the face of it, the data from France, Italy and Spain for February told the same story; car sales was solid. All reported rises, while German sales fell 30% from a year ago when they hit a decade high as the car scrappage scheme kicked in. France, Italy and Spain have maintained their car scrappage schemes into 2010, while Germany’s finished late last year and sales have been falling ever since. France will retain its scheme this year, Italy’s ends soon and but February’s sales were down 35% on a year ago. The Italian industry forecasts a “black spring” with sales down 20-30% over the rest of 2010. Spain is keeping its in place; it has no other option, the economy is still in recession and the Government doesn’t want more unemployed car workers pushing the jobless rate past 20%. Falling car output in Germany and Italy will put pressure on consumption and production in those countries and across Europe. Germany’s economy slowed to no growth in the fourth quarter, Italy’s dipped back into the red.

Bush news #1: Enduring optimism is trait shared by rural Australia’s and Japanese companies. After all, what other  reason do they have for remaining in business some years? Both pride themselves on looking at the long term, so when the two meet, you get the Sumitomo purchase of 20% of Nufarm, the rural chemicals group, at $14 a share, when the price was about $9.50 after the company’s third profit downgrade in about nine months. The Sumitomo deal was given the green light by Nufarm shareholders yesterday. Last last year the Nufarm board rejected a reduced full takeover offer from Sinochem of China, who took a look at the books and cut its original offer of $14 a share to $13. So rapid has been Nufarm’s slump that instead of making a profit in the six months to January, the company is now forecasting a loss of about $40 million, although it still sees a strong second-half rebound and a full-year profit. Farmers have cut their use of weed killers and other chemicals because in many cases, such as Brazil, they can’t get credit from their banks.

Bush news #2: Sheep numbers are continuing to fall in this country, with ABARE (the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics) estimating a 3% fall in the number of sheep to 75 million by the end of the 2011 financial year. That’s the size of the shearing flock. According to ABARE. “Although favourable returns to sheep meat production and improved seasonal conditions are expected to encourage producers to retain breeding stock in 2009-10 and 2010-11, it is unlikely that producers will reduce slaughter rates sufficiently to turn flock numbers around in this period … Any shift toward sheep from cropping is likely to focus on meat rather than wool production, given that returns to lamb production are projected to remain higher than returns from wool.” By 2014-15 the number of sheep shorn could be down 10% from 2008. Cattle and calf slaughterings will total 8.35 million this financial year and 8.49 million in 2011. Sheep and lamb slaughterings will total 31 million this financial year and 28.5 million in 2011. That’s why the already high lamb prices will continue rising.

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Not so sweet: World sugar prices continue to plunge on reports that India’s output deficit would be much smaller, meaning a fall imports. As well there’s a fall in importer demand ahead of news on the approaching 2010 Brazilian harvest. Sugar prices have fallen 11.7% so far this week, after falling 11% in February. Prices peaked  at 30.40USc a pound in early January, the closed at $21.30US cents in New York overnight. That’s a fall of 30%. Sugar has been the strongest performing commodity, now it’s the weakest.

Not original? The Nine Network’s digital channel GO! was thought to be original. Think again perhaps? There’s  TV business on Malta called Go (without the !) Here’s the url. And here’s who they are. “Our main shareholder — 60% — is Dubai Holding LLC, the parent company of Emirates International Telecommunications Malta Ltd (EIT itself is a joint venture between TECOM Investments and Dubai Investment Group). The remaining 40% lies with private shareholders and we’re also listed on both the Malta and London Stock Exchange. The registered and trading company name of GO is GO p.l.c. At GO, we’re proud of becoming Malta’s first and only quadruple play operator, a truly converged telecommunications operator with a huge range of services. And to help you find exactly the right service for you, we’ve grouped them together into three areas — GO Business, GO Mobile and GO Plus.” A bit more than GO! at the Nine Network.

Go Shell. Royal Dutch Shell is selling off unwanted bits of its empire, starting with its European liquid petroleum gas business and fields in the North Sea to help meet the cost of its $US28 billion capex program this year. Reports in European media say Shell plans to raise $US2-3 billion this year from selling assets that are important to its growth plan. The reports say these will include assets such as refining and marketing operations in mature markets such as Europe.

Shell go? Did we mention mature downstream businesses in refining and retailing? Well, what about Australia? It’s as mature a market as there is for Shell. Company watchers have noted the most recent corporate change left the Australian downstream business in the unusual position of being a discrete business, with its own chairman, board and corporate reporting system, effectively outside the global reporting system and structure of Shell. All other bits of Shell from around the world are tied into the company’s complicated reporting and responsibility systems that are based on product and businesses. Previously Australian downstream businesses would report to head office here and to the head of the region and the HQ in Europe. The current structure, which covers 10 businesses — including refining, retailing (the service station joint venture with Coles), products such as auto and industrial oils, jet fuel, distribution contracts with various carriers, mining and small businesses. All are now independent in the Shell Australia structure from the global structure.

Shell going: It is pointed out Shell is negotiating the sale of its so-called downstream assets in NZ country (a mature market, like Australia) with a consortium of Infratil and New Zealand Superannuation. An Australian sale might be conditional on how easy or difficult those talks are. Shell’s upstream (producing assets) business is not being sold. Those in Australia are held through Shell Energy Holdings. They include 34% of Woodside and the larger North West Shelf gas project, a stake in Arrow, the Queensland coal seam gas group and a host of other energy-based projects and prospects, including the huge Gorgon LNG project.

As a Crikey subscriber and someone who began working as a journalist in 1957, I am passionate about the importance of independent media like Crikey. I met a lot of Australians from many walks of life during my career and did my best to share their stories honestly and fairly with their fellow citizens.

And I never forgot how important it is to hold politicians to account. Crikey does that – something that is more important now than ever before in Australia.

North Stradbroke Island, QLD

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