The gulf between Australia and the US has again been underlined. American consumer confidence remains weak, unlike Australia where figures out yesterday showed business confidence and conditions are solid levels and approaching the best for several years. And local consumer confidence figures out this morning confirmed the NAB survey from yesterday. The Westpac/Melbourne Institute consumer sentiment Index rose 0.2 per cent in March to 117.3 points, from 117 in February, a reading also supported by the most recent weekly Roy Morgan poll. And yet, despite this high level of confidence, there’s been a noticeable fall in new housing commitments (for new and existing homes) in the past few months. Australian Bureau of Statistics figures out this morning show a fall in housing finance commitments in January. “In seasonally adjusted terms, the total value of dwelling finance commitments excluding alterations and additions decreased 3.3%,” the ABS reported.

That should normally ease some of the concerns about the housing price surge, but it has to be pointed out that the Reserve Bank sees the raw figures that go to the ABS and draws its own conclusions. So today’s speech by the Deputy Governor in charge of economic analysis, Phil Lowe, would have been written in the knowledge that bank home lending was weakening. And yet he still warned:

“We will need to keep a strong focus on improving the supply side of the economy so that demand can grow solidly without putting upward pressure on inflation.

“We also face the significant challenge of increasing the supply of housing at a time when business investment is also very high.”

The question is whether the fall in housing finance represents a fall off in demand from home buyers (existing and potential) or rationing by banks already heavily committed to the sector because of their home lending splurge in 2009?

He’s at it again: Rupert Murdoch can’t help himself. Every time he discovers a country, region or industry where he sees a way of making money, he rushes to lecture it on how it should change to benefit everyone, starting with News Corp. He has done it in China, India, Australia, the UK, the US, in film, in TV, the internet (many times). Now, after two two small deals to establish a foothold in the Middle East, the 79-year-old (tomorrow) was off lecturing the region overnight about liberalising the markets, reducing censorship and the joys of riding “a powerful wind” of creativity blowing through the region.

Still at it: Murdoch made the opening speech at the inaugural Abu Dhabi Media Summit and warned against “creative protectionism”, telling governments in the region: “With the right economic incentives you will find creative Arab enterprises rising higher and faster than your most modern buildings. A few months ago, I spoke in Beijing about the critical importance of having good copyright laws that protect the value people create. Today I wish to speak more broadly about values, competition, and incentives.” He also urged his hosts not to succumb to the temptation of censorship, noting that he had “endured my share of blistering newspaper attacks, unflattering television coverage and books that grossly distort my views or my businesses or both”, but that this was the price of success. “Markets that distort their media end up promoting the very panic and distrust that they had hoped to control.”

Still persisting: Rupert, of course, was conveniently blind to the fact that most governments in the Gulf are not democratic, but monarchies and that freedom of expression is an unknown concept. He doesn’t mind that, they way he’s tried to snuggle up to the Chinese government. But he also ignored the fact that in many Middle Eastern countries, woman are disenfranchised. No page three birds here, or outspoken commentators on Fox, unless they were pro-royal family. But what the heck, there’s money to be made and while warning against “creative protectionism”, the balding old mogul showed his true colours in his latest joint venture with an Abu Dhabi government-sponsored company, twofour54. Fox International is moving some of its operations to Abu Dhabi. He has already bought into Rotana, a Saudi media company owned by a major shareholder in News, Prince Alwaleed bin Talal. No creative outsiders for the Rupster, or mavericks (like he still sees himself). No, its insiders and the state for him. Much easier that way after the embarrassment of being rejected by China.

Son of still at it: And Rupe’s clone son, James, the putative heir, speaks at the summit and will no doubt warn the Arab world and its mostly state-controlled media, against setting up free business models. And no doubt the No.3 man in News will also tell his hosts and anyone else listening of the evils of state-run media (how very BBC) and the joys of depending on profit making models of the News Corp kind, and not their own business ideas, or their own cultures. Dad made his ambitions very clear:  “When we look to the future, News Corporation is betting on the creative potential of the more than 335 million people who make up the Arab world.” Ahh, what about Iran and its mostly Shia Persians?

More cars: China’s car sales slowed last month, with the Lunar New Year holidays the culprit. China’s Association of Auto Manufactures overnight said that 2.88 million vehicles were sold in January and February. In February 1.2 million units were sold, which was a fall from the very strong 1.66 million sold in January. February’s sales were 46% above the depressed February figures of a year ago, but the Lunar New Year holiday fell in January 2009 and not February as it did this year. Sales for January and February were up 83.8% from the same months of 2009.

Under starters orders: Earlier this week Centrebet said would be expanding its online betting into more financial products. At the moment it offers a product whereby you can bet on three closing levels for the ASX 200 on March 31. But it says stocks and commodities will follow. I wonder though if Centrebet cares to make a market on it remaining controlled by big bookie Con Kafataris through his family shareholding of about 60%. Centrebet yesterday said that it had received several approaches of a “non-binding” nature that could see it acquired (I wish you could bet on horses on a non-binding basis). UK betting groups Ladbrokes, William Hill, Paddy Power, Sportingbet and Bwin have been named. Other UK punting industry analysts suggest Sportingbet might be interested, and to watch Betfair, which has a rails run with the joint venture with James Packer. Making a market on whether Centrebet will remain independent might be tough and illegal, after all it would involve some insider knowledge and trading, but it’s a thought. How about Tabcorp or Betfair (controlled by Paddy Power) doing the honours? And no laying it to lose!

Downgrade #1? Even before the Australian Financial Review printed its handy look at first-half profits this morning, we had the first earnings downgrade for the 2010 year from Sydney-based building products supplier Alesco Corporation. It makes things such as B&D roller doors. It lowered profit forecasts for the year to May in an ASX statement yesterday evening. “Alesco now expects revenue performance in the fourth quarter to be much weaker than anticipated at the half-year. As a result, earnings per share before amortisation and significant items (EPS) for the full year is now forecast to be in the range of 24 to 27 cents (down from the previous guidance of between 34 to 36 cents). ” That’s a fall of about 30%, after first-half earnings fell 29%. Alesco has now issued three profit warnings for the current financial year. Not the best of track records.