Are the watchpuppies pouncing on payday sharks? ASIC this morning released a 44-page report into the activities of payday lenders, like Cash Converters, which is a 33%-owned associate of the big American pawnbroker and payday lender EZ Corp. Cash Converters and Money3 are the two listed payday sharks on the ASX and they and the many unlisted operators have been warned by ASIC to be prepared to face enforcement action unless standards improve. ASIC said that file reviews of 13 payday lenders representing 75% of the market, which lends around $400 million a year to vulnerable hard-up people, had found “some lenders engaging in conduct that risks breaching responsible lending obligations”. ASIC said some payday lenders were not properly assessing the suitability of loans for particular customers. The regulator also identified “systemic weaknesses in documentation and record keeping”. The report did find that in several areas, payday lenders were complying with their obligations after laws were tightened in July 2013. It said 90-day account statements and warnings were generally being provided. Yet ASIC also found that payday lenders are falling short in meeting some important new obligations introduced as part of the small amount lending reforms in 2013. And ASIC deputy chairman Peter Kell said: “The payday lending sector is on notice to improve its practices or further enforcement action is inevitable.” One rort identified by the investigation was where payday lenders set their loan terms at 12 months or more, thereby charging the consumer more fees, in circumstances where a consumer had requested a shorter term and paid the loan back in that shorter time. Nasty and sneaky.

More brands than Woolies? Retail Food Group (RFG) is Australia’s carbs, sugar and caffeine king, dominating bread, cakes and coffees like no other retailer, with a multiplicity of brands, including the Donut King, Brumby’s Bakery, Michel’s Patisserie, Esquires, The Coffee Guy, Cafe2U, Pizza Capers, Gourmet Kitchen and Crust Gourmet Pizza franchise systems. In addition, RFG is a significant wholesale coffee roaster supplying existing Brand Systems and third-party accounts under the Evolution Coffee Roasters Group, Caffe Coffee, Roasted Addiqtion and Barista’s Choice coffee brands. It also owns Gloria Jean’s and Di Bella Coffee Group, which it bought last year for well over $200 million — a sale completed yesterday at a shareholder meeting of RFG. So somewhere in the past week or so, you have drunk a coffee provided in someway by RFG, eaten some carbs, or munched on a bit of sugary danger. — Glenn Dyer

China’s budget shows the slowdown. Reporting on the fine print in a foreign government’s budget position doesn’t normally turn me on, but the first two month’s data for China gives us a very good idea of the damage from the slowdown. (The UK budget on Wednesday will be another exception being a pre-election document and containing a couple of interesting tax and retirement moves). China’s fiscal revenue rose 3.2% to 2.57 trillion yuan (US$410.5 billion) in January and February, less than half the 8.6% seen in the same two months of 2014. Revenues from the real estate sector fell 1.6% in the first two months of the year as China’s housing industry continued to slow. Property sales in the first two months of 2015 experienced the biggest drop in three years; government revenue earned from selling state land tumbled 20.9%. Overall, income tax revenues dropped 7.1%, consumption tax and import value-added tax slumped 9.7%, and tariff revenues dropped 5.3% as sliding commodity prices — such as oil and iron ore — slashed the value of imports. And on the spending side of the budget, outlays rose 10.5% from a year ago, ahead of the 8.2% rise for all of last year. The slowdown is very real and gradually deepening — that’s what the numbers tell us. That’s why it’s important to Australia and that’s why we will see some spending by the Chinese government in a stimulus package this year. — Glenn Dyer

Chinese investors understand that. They are still charging into shares on the Shanghai sharemarket with their ears pinned back. A 1.8% jump yesterday, on top of a 4.1% surge last week — the Shanghai market is up more than 6% so far this quarter. It jumped 47% in the final six months of 2014, and yet the economy has slowed since then. Buying on the rumour of more stimulus (two rate cuts and two reductions in reserve ratios in just under four months are clearly not enough to help the economy) – so when will the big bucks start flowing? — Glenn Dyer

What do you get when you cross a Swiss and a Frenchman? An untidy and expensive outcome, it turns out. Shares were shattered by the ending of a 42 billion euro ($58 billion) merger of cement and concrete suppliers Holcim of Switzerland and Lafarge of France. Before it collapsed overnight (it wasn’t even consumated), the merger was hailed as the biggest ever deal in the global building materials sector when announced late in 2014. And it would have had a sweeping impact in Australia with the Lafarge-owned Hanson Building Products (the old Pioneer) and the Holcim cement business (the old Queensland Cement and Lime Company), among the key assets in this country in a local merger. Thanks to the rise in the Swiss franc from January’s unpegging, and then the rapid slide in the value of the euro, the deal fell apart. There have been rumours for weeks of the deal’s increasing shakiness, thanks to the rapid change in currencies. Holcim bailed out because it said it was no longer willing to pursue a merger of equals (Holcim’s shares are now worth a lot more than those of Lafarge). Both companies say they are willing to talk, but Lafarge says it won’t budge from the idea of a merger of equals, while Holcim says that’s no longer viable. And there’s a further knock on with UK building products group CRH taken by surprise, but still determined to pursue its planned purchase of “certain assets” (they are still unknown) from Lafarge and Holcim, and would continue with a shareholder meeting to that effect to be held in the UK on Thursday. What are the odds that one doesn’t go ahead? — Glenn Dyer

Holfarge, or LaCim, not the first mega-marriage flop. It is the second major global mega-merger of equals (as nil-premium merger/takeovers are so nicely described). Ten months ago, the US$35 billion deal between Publicis of France and Omnicom of the US — that would have created the world’s biggest marketing services and research group topping WPP — collapsed after the CEO of Publicis, Maurice Levy, pulled the plug. The mix of French and US cultures proved too much, even for the advertising industry. When there are big egos involved, there’s no such thing as a “merger of equals”. — Glenn Dyer

From Basketball to Renoir? Tad Smith — heard of him? Well, no, and nor have a lot of other people in the clubby global art market. Tad was, up to last night, the CEO of Madison Square Garden Co, owner of one of New York’s iconic landmarks. Smith spent just 12 months with the Garden, before resigning yesterday to take up another gig as CEO Of Sotheby’s, the auction house. Smith’s background isn’t really arts and crafts. He came to the Garden from Cablevision (both companies are owned by the Dolan family, one of the pioneers of the US cable TV sector). His background is in the media and entertainment, not high-end art auctions. He succeeds longtime Sotheby’s CEO William Ruprecht, who announced last year that he would leave his post when a successor is named. Smith’s appointment goes into effect on March 31. Sotheby’s also announced that it will separate its chairman and CEO roles, saying that it has tapped independent director Domenico De Sole as chairman. The appointments come after Sotheby’s has faced pressure from shareholders in recent months. It stopped payment of a special dividend and is under pressure to spend $500 million on a buyback (the usual greenmail stuff). Tad’s appointment though is a real eyeopener, a bit like finding your Monet isn’t a Manet but something by an unknown. — Glenn Dyer

SVOD’s march continues. Cablevision, the big US east coast-based pay TV operation (it owns Madison Square Garden, see above) has broken ranks with other pay TV organisations by becoming the first to sign up to HBO’s effort to offer its new streaming service to people who don’t also subscribe to an expanded basic cable package. The companies didn’t disclose pricing or terms. As a result of the agreement, Cablevision says it will be able to stream HBO Now (and the new Game of Thrones series) to its Optimum Online customers. HBO says it will launch the streaming service sometime before April 12, when the new season of Game Of Thrones starts. HBO priced the new service as a US$14.99 a month option for Apple TV users. As a result, Apple has a three-month exclusive period for digital-only services, but HBO said overnight that traditional pay TV providers also could offer HBO Now from the start if they want. Deadline pointed to an irony in the Cablevision deal — its founder, Charles Dolan, actually started HBO before selling it to Time Inc, which then merged with Warner Communications to create Time Warner. — Glenn Dyer

Peter Fray

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