Oil slick fallout grows: BP’s Gulf of Mexico oil spill crisis is starting to impact world markets. Oil prices hit an 18-month high overnight at more than $US87 a barrel (they closed at $US86.08) in New York and more than $US88 a barrel in London (Brent crude ended at $US88.86). BP’s share price fell 3.7% in New York trading as London was closed. That’s almost $US6 billion off its market value, taking the toll so far to more than $US30 billion. More worryingly, BP’s share of the cost is now estimated at about $US8 billion, according to the Financial Times. And the total cost was put at $US12.5 billion. But the US federal legislation covering oil spill costs and clean-ups only has a maximum provision of $US75 million for loss of profits, according to the FT. Several US Senators are trying to have it boosted to $US10 billion. The FT said the spill has “done incalculable damage to its (BP’s) reputation in the US.

Bye bye Canwest: The split up and sale of the bankrupt Canwest TV and newspaper interests in Canada is heading for the end game. Overnight Shaw Communications moved closer to buying the TV channels (pay and free to air) by doing a deal with Goldman Sachs and buying its interest in the specialty channels for $C700 million. The next step would be to complete a deal to give it control of the free-to-air interests. And Torstar Corp says that it and Fairfax Financial Holdings (which is a Torstar shareholder) Ltd, had made an offer to buy Canwest’s newspaper and digital assets. The deadline for the sale of newspapers was last Friday. Canwest’s unsecured creditors have also submitted a bid. And there may be one other bid, but Torstar is the most credible bidder with its existing newspaper and digital interests, and ownership of the Harlequin book group, (which publishes Mills & Boon, the world’s most popular bodice rippers).

So what do the experts know? “Super Tax on BHP, Xstrata May Stall Mining M&A in Australia” blathered a story on Bloomberg this morning quoting fund managers and others on the proposed super tax on mining company profits.  “BHP Billiton Ltd and Xstrata Plc’s expansion and acquisitions plans may stall on Australia’s plan to increase taxes on mining companies whose profits have surged $A80 billion ($74 billion) in the past decade. Any probability of mining takeovers proceeding has lessened,” said Tim Schroeders, who helps manage about $1.1 billion at Pengana Capital Ltd.  Oh, dear.  An hour later this statement was issued by Newcrest and Lihir Gold  “Newcrest to snap up Lihir”.  “LGL shareholders will receive one Newcrest share for every 8.43 LGL shares they own, plus $A0.225 cash per share, less any interim dividend declared or paid by LGL for the half year ending 30 June 2010. Based on Newcrest’s closing price of A$32.06 on May 3, the implied offer price from Newcrest is now A$4.03 per LGL share, valuing LGL at approximately A$9.5 billion.” It’s the old story, do as the money does, follow the money trail. If the management of these companies reckon the tax either won’t impact them or they can live with it,  then the rest of the complaints and moans from miners are just special-interest pleading, as we get at every major change, and then forget about when the sky fails to fall. All very Chicken Little. So yesterday’s $14 billion sell-off, mostly in resources stocks, was top of the paper and bulletin news last night and this morning. Will the Newcrest-Lihir $9.5 billion merger get the same treatment? And guess which story replaced the first story on the Bloomberg home page? This one “Newcrest Agrees to Acquire Lihir for About A$9.5 Billion.” Oops. The first story is still running on the Australia and New Zealand pages

Yeah, here’s another joke, Joyce: The chief executive of building products supplier Alesco Corp, Justin Ryan, (roller doors) has quit in a surprise move. But the key announcement was in early March when the company revealed a downgrade of full year earnings. Alesco chairman Mark Luby said in yesterday’s statement that Ryan was going immediately with $1.7 million in benefits. He will be replaced by the head of the group’s garage doors and openers division, Peter Boyd, effective immediately. On March 9, Alesco said that its earnings per share before amortisation and significant items for the full year was expected to be 24 to 27 cents, down from the previous guidance of 34 to 36 cents. Alesco said today that Ryan would be required to repay outstanding loans under the Alesco share options plan. Yes, in 10 years time: “Mr Ryan is required to repay the outstanding loan amounts under the Alesco Performance Share Acquisition Plan by no later than 10 years from the drawdown dates with the first repayment due in 2016 and the last repayment due in 2019.” Should we all be so lucky.

May 6: ignore the UK poll, it’s the economy afterwards: As commentators and others (the ABC Insiders program) chat up the UK poll and the possibility of a “hung parliament”,  the outlook after the election is one of unremitting gloom. The new government will have to get real about the huge debt and deficit, and won’t have solid economic growth with which to fudge forward estimates and try to pull the wool over the eyes of the markets. In fact, the respected independent economic think tank, the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, says the economy will grow more slowly this year and next because consumer spending will be weak.

After May 6, it’s slow and low: The institute says growth will be 1% this year, down from the 1.1% rate forecast in January, with 2011 seeing a rise of 2% and 2.2% in 2012, both unchanged. Institute economist  Simon Kirby was reported as telling UK media that “the economy will crawl this year. We’re expecting growth to continue over the next couple of years, but his growth is weak”. He said the institute saw the need for deeper cuts and higher taxes to reduce the budget deficit and to start controlling borrowings. It’s looking for cuts and higher taxes of 2% of UK GDP, or about £30 billion (or $US46 billion). Not Greece-like but …

In Europe, the same playlist: Unemployment in the 16 eurozone economies remained at a record 10% in March (at least it didn’t rise across the group), despite that fall in German unemployment reported on Friday. In fact Spain was the real story: unemployment hit 20.1%, the first time it has been at 20% or more for more than 10 years. Greece had an unemployment rate of 19.1% and if the report was a music top 100 chart, it would have had a big red bullet next to its name, meaning its heading for No.1. That is Latvia, where the rate was 22.3%, but starting to improve. Germany’s rate was 7.3%, down from 7.4% as the country leads the zone in subsidising companies to put employees on shorter hours rather than sacking them (Italy and other countries have similar measures).

In the US, the bank crunch goes on: Puerto Rico has nasty bank collapse: Seven banks closed in the US last Friday night, our time, including three in Puerto Rico in a move that seems to have averted the implosion of the island Commonwealth’s financial system and economy. The three banks in Puerto Rico were among the largest and will cost US taxpayers almost $US5.4 billion as the Fed and other regulators were forced to throw regulations out the window to achieve a bailout. The buyer of the bank is a sound local that will end up with 31% of all bank deposits in the Commonwealth. It was the biggest financial failure in any one US banking market since the Savings and Loans failures of the early 1990s. The three closed banks had deposits of more than $US14.8 billion and assets of just over $US20 billion. As well, a bank in Washington state, the Frontier Bank, which had $US3.13 billion in deposits, will cost the insurance fund $US1.37 billion, proportionately,  one of the biggest losses recorded at about 44% of deposits. A total of 64 US banks have failed this year, 22 in the past three weeks alone.

Warren’s financial realpolitk: Yes, Warren Buffett gave a big vote of support of God’s Work (aka The Vampire Squid, aka Goldman Sachs) at his Berkshire Hathaway annual meeting in Omaha Nebraska on Saturday, but there was a real, hard financial reason for his support. Money. Or rather the PR and possible legal predicament Goldman Sachs now finds itself in after the SEC launched its fraud action on April 16, meaning that Goldman Sachs needs Buffett’s continuing support more than ever. So that means the $US5 billion of Goldman preferred shares he presently holds, won’t be “called” by Goldman while it’s in trouble. Calling Goldman would force Buffett to sell the preferreds back to it for $US5.5 billion.

Warren’s in it for the money: So why would he give up a 10% profit? Because Berkshire can only get $US20 million a year investing that $US5 billion. That’s because it’s insurance money and has to be held in low-yielding, bank accounts, or in high-grade, triple A-rated paper, such as Goldman shares or bonds, or cash. The Goldman preferreds pay him just under $US500 million (or 10% interest) a year, or as he told the annual meeting (and 40,000 shareholders): “Every day that Goldman does not call our preferred is money in the bank. Our preferred is paying $15 per second … so as we sit here… tick tick tick … its $15 in the bank. I don’t want those ticks to go away.” It’s brutal, but realistic. I bet the Goldman management and chief financial officer would cringe hearing that rationale.

Peter Fray

Save 50% on a year of Crikey and The Atlantic.

The US election is in a little over a month. It seems that there’s a ridiculous twist in the story, almost every day.

Luckily for new Crikey subscribers, we’ve teamed up with one of America’s best publications, The Atlantic for the election race. Subscribe now to make sense of it all, and you’ll get a year of Crikey (usually $199) and a year’s digital subscription to The Atlantic (usually $70AUD), BOTH for just $129.

Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

JOIN NOW