PM’s “poison” comments startle: Did our Prime Minister really accuse Australian companies of poisoning their customers? Yep, he did — this is what he said this week in his latest captain’s call:

“Government has a role but business has a role too because the last thing we want to do is load on so much more regulation, so many more criteria that the price goes through the roof. We don’t want that. We want safe products, but we want safe products at a fair price too.”

“Businesses have an obligation to do the right thing by their customers; they have an obligation to ensure that the products they sell are safe.”

“The bottom line is that companies should not poison their customers.”

Now, if a trade union or consumer group had made this statement, then Abbott, his Agriculture Minister Barnaby Joyce, and a host of motormouths among the conservative commentariat would have been all over them, accusing them of defaming innocent companies. But it seems a struggling conservative Prime Minister can get away with defaming all Australian companies, large and small, who are involved in selling products to customers.  I wonder how Coles, Woolworths, Metcash and other companies would feel about being accused by the Prime Minister of poisoning their customers? — Glenn Dyer

Tidying up Wesfarmers. Time to break up the conglomerate. The retail businesses are doing well, providing 91% of Wesfarmers’ operating profits, while the other, older Wesfarmers’ legacy assets are lagging behind. Sell them off and change the name to Coles. That’s the message from the interim profit figures from Wesfarmers yesterday. They provide enough evidence for shareholders to press management and the board to finally get rid of its low-performing coal mining and industrial assets and concentrate on the various retail chains in Coles — which include Coles Supermarkets, Bunnings, Officeworks, Kmart and Target. For evidence of the need for a divorce, just look at how the retailing assets did in the six months to December. — Glenn Dyer

The Good: Coles supermarkets managed a 7.1% rise in year-on-year earnings before interest and tax for the first half, to $895 million. The Bunnings hardware chain reported a 10% lift in first-half earnings before interest and tax to $618 million, and same-store sales increased by 9.1%. If Bunnings keeps growing earnings like that, it will be Wesfarmers’ most profitable business by the end of this decade. Kmart’s earnings grew 11.2% to $289 million for the period on sales growth of 5.3%. Sales in the second quarter rose 7% on a top-line basis and a solid 3.4% on a same-store basis, refuting industry claims of a weak Christmas period. Total revenue rose to $2.4 billion for the half. The other department store chain, Target, again disappointed. Target reported earnings of $70 million were in line with the prior year, while sales fell 1.8% lower. Revenue fell 1.5% to $1.9 billion. Comparable store sales again fell 1%. It was a different story at Officeworks, where earnings of $50 million were 19% higher for the period, with sales growth for the half of 7.7% recorded (7.5% in the second quarter). — Glenn Dyer

The Bad. Coles Express revenue (naturally) fell 6% year-on-year to $3.9 billion, due to falling fuel volumes and prices and an undertaking to the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission that it would limit discounts on fuel linked to supermarket purchases to 4 cents a litre. Strip out the petrol and the Coles Express shops did very nicely, thank you. And now the real stragglers — earnings for the Chemicals, Energy and Fertilisers division fell 13.6% to $95 million and earnings from the coal mines in Queensland and NSW fell more than 40% to just $35 million. Time for the axe and some inventive, fee-hungry bankers to call on Wesfarmers and draw up the property settlement for the divorce. Business leaders and managers like Wesfarmers CEO Richard Goyder keep urging the country to be efficient and for our politicians to show leadership — well then, here’s his chance to match the rhetoric with value-adding action, a bit closer to home. — Glenn Dyer

Drilling shareholders to save cash. Transocean, one of the world’s major offshore drilling contractors, slashed its dividend by 80% this week and parted ways with its CEO of five years — only four months after being one of the earliest companies to react to falling oil prices by writing down the value of its offshore rigs by US$2.7 billion, and cut spending planned for 2015. The company said the reason to slash dividends was done to keep its investment credit rating and conserve cash. A rival offshore driller, Seadrill (a Norwegian company) announced in November it was suspending its dividend. Transocean owned the Deepwater Horizon rig, which in 2010 was working under contract for BP in the Gulf of Mexico, when the now-infamous Macondo well explosion killed 11 men and set off the largest offshore oil spill in US history. It cost Transocean US$1.4 billion and BP’s costs, in the tens of billions of dollars, are still not finalised. Exxon Mobil, the world’s biggest non-state oil company, is due to reveal its planned cuts next month. Irony of ironies, one of the shareholders in Transocean who will feel the pain is US billionaire shareholder activist (“greenmailer” was the old pejorative term), Carl Icahn, who has been pressing the company to pay out its cash, and who extracted a US$3 a share payout last year — but no more. — Glenn Dyer

Oil second round spending cuts start. Despite a rebound in global oil prices, we are now seeing the start of the second round of cost cuts from oil and gas companies. For example, Marathon Oil is America’s fourth-largest refiner, and a major independent producer, but yesterday it announced its second round of cost cuts in three months. In December, the company whacked 20% off its 2015 capex budget (to between US$4.3 and US$4.5 billion). Yesterday, it sliced another 20% off that range to US$3.5 billion. Marathon now says that 70% of its capital spending this year will be focused on its three major US projects in the tight shale areas: Eagle Ford basin, Bakken field and Oklahoma Resource basin. So Marathon doesn’t plan to cut its production from these areas any time soon. — Glenn Dyer

Peter Fray

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