Secret trade business. There they were, a motley collection of economists, analysts and media gloom and doom yesterday (and headline chasing on websites) about the weak retail sales figures (no rise in April from March) and a surge in the trade deficit to $3.9 billion, the highest on record, and how this was terrible and the start of a big slide in the trade account. Rubbish. As the Australian Bureau of Statistics pointed out, $2.6 billion of that figure came from a fall in exports of coal and related products (down 22%, with Cyclone Marcia stopping shipments from central Queensland ports in early April singled out) and a surge in imports of capital goods — up 10% and a 69% surge in imports of plant and machinery. Now we are still in the last throes of a resource investment boom, so big rises in imports of capital goods and machinery is not unexpected. What is not known is when this gear came into Australia and was picked up by the ABS — much of it could have arrived in late March. And, instead of calling a trend of one month’s figures, let’s wait and see what happens in May and June. Like last year, retail spending in May and June will be influenced by the federal budget. Now that will be of interest. — Glenn Dyer
Iron ore boomlet appears. Data from Port Hedland showing something quite inexplicable yesterday (if you read the forecasts of gloom and doom about iron ore from the likes of Goldman Sachs, Credit Suisse, Citigroup and a conga line of followers in the media and commentariat). There’s an iron ore boomlet well underway at a time the Chinese steel mills tell us they are on their last legs and the Chinese economy is sluggish and struggling (like ours) to grow. The data from Port Hedland revealed that in the first five months of this year, iron ore exports hit 182.4 million tonnes, 13% more than a year ago, with shipments to China up 18% to 153.5 million tonne. May’s record topped the previous high, set in October of last year. Exports to China were the highest this year. In fact, exports in May rose 5.2% from April to top 31.69 million tonnes. Prices overnight rose 2.3% to US$64.77 a tonne, the highest since mid-February. Prices are now up 38% from the 10-year low of US$47.08 on April 2. — Glenn Dyer
Who knew? Metcash shares slipped 3.9% in Wednesday’s generally weak market, a fall that attracted virtually no attention given the bulk of the falls were in the prices of the big banks. Yesterday, came the reason for that fall (which came after the shares hit $1.44 on Monday): a stonking write-down and loss of $604 million, and a decision by the board to withhold dividends for 18 months and down the shares went, plunging more than 17% to $1.14, the lowest for a decade or more. Metcash is in a dire financial position, and shareholders are going to have to take the pain for years of poor management, dumb purchases and fluffed restructurings. Some $507 million of the figure relates to goodwill and other intangible assets, and another $133 million of losses relate to assets in its food and grocery business. The company is suffering from the increasingly tough and competitive grocery market as Coles monsters Woolworths, which is fighting back, and the big two are being attacked by Aldi and Costco. Metcash, which supplies the IGA chain, is the fifth and most vulnerable of the supermarket chains.
The company’s shares had risen in the past month as details leaked of a possible float of its automotive parts chain (or a trade sale). That had the shares rise from $1.24 on May 11 to $1.44 on Monday. Yesterday they fell more than 17% (such as was shock in the market at the news). The write-downs reflect the overpayments for Mitre 10 and the parent of Autobarn. It paid a total of $101 million for Mitre 10 in staged purchases and nearly $54 million for 75% Automotive BrandsGroup (in 2012) and bought Midas for an undisclosed amount in 2014. Even after the write-downs, Metcash will still have a massive $1.15 billion of goodwill and intangibles on its balance sheet, which should remain a concern for shareholders. More pain ahead, I think, but this one could get very personal for the owners of the 2000 or so outlets and company employees. — GLenn Dyer