Grocon chair and CEO Daniel Grollo (Image: AAP/Julian Smith)

I have covered plenty of booms and busts in 40 years as a business reporter, but never both happening at the same time.

This is the only inference that can be drawn from the bizarre state of the Australian economy and business sector at the moment.

From shares to property to art, markets are booming. But at the same time big and small companies have collapsed, many more are on the verge of bankruptcy, and banks warn of dire times ahead. Unemployment remains high, the rest of the world is still in the grip of a pandemic, and a vaccine is still months away.

But hey, don’t let that stop the party starting. We’re in the midst of what I would call the Australian Relief Rally.

Recession? What recession? Apparently that was all over in a matter of months, as flush consumers spent their pent-up cash and government cheques like there was no tomorrow. Presumably because they thought there might not be.

But hey, what would I know after covering five crashes? The veteran market observers I spoke with are equally incredulous, putting it down to the new phenomenon of governments printing billions of dollars in cheap money with nowhere to go.

Former US Federal Reserve chief Alan Greenspan spoke of “irrational exuberance” before the global financial crisis, but in this case it is seems to be just irrational.

Let’s take the property sector, for example. There has been breathless media coverage about soaring prices, up to 10% higher than before the crash. The Sydney Morning Herald summed it up with this weekend’s headline, “What happened to the property price crash that was predicted but never came?”.

Low interest rates, government support and growing confidence in the economy was the answer; of course, the first two explain the third.

Meanwhile, incredibly, there has been far less coverage of the fact that one of the nation’s largest and oldest property developers collapsed last month. The Grollo family’s giant Grocon company declared administration in November with hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of projects around the country in doubt.

When property giant Mainline collapsed in 1974 it caused an earthquake in the economy. But this time Grocon is simply treated as one of the many property company crashes currently occurring from Queensland to Western Australia.

Meanwhile diners are packing restaurants, particularly the top-end ones. Rockpool, the bizoids’ favourite headquarters, is booked solid through December. Pity the company that owns it is reportedly on the brink of collapse as well with losses of $80 million for the last half. Media reports claim the future of the business is currently in the hands of its bankers and the Australian Taxation Office.

It’s the same thing at the trendy, packed restaurants of gossip columnist fave Justin Hemmes. The latest accounts for Hemmes Trading showed profits had dropped from $4 million to just $260,000. That’s not surprising given the pandemic shutdown, but the truly disturbing revelation was that current liabilities exceed assets by a whopping $60 million.

Despite this, Hemmes just paid a bullish $32 million for a Randwick pub known as The DOG. Go figure, as the experts say.

And let’s not even get started on the booming stockmarket.

The $30 billion in IPOs and capital raisings should be causing concern — from groups like McPherson’s that report downgrades soon after they have gone to the market for cash, to the myriad new listings that are coming so thick and fast few have time to properly analyse the numbers.

“Pump and dump” is the mantra. Though stockbrokers would never say that out loud.

And don’t rely on the Australian Securities and Investments Commission (ASIC) to be the watchdog given it can’t even monitor its own finances. Two corporate cops were lost to an expenses scandal last month.

Though, to be fair, ASIC is busy investigating alleged egregious Ponzi schemes, like the case of missing Sydney financial planner Melissa Caddick. She disappeared after being raided by ASIC over some $40 million in funds which might have been misappropriated.

There are echoes of the Bernie Madoff Ponzi scheme collapse in the US at the start of the global financial crisis. Although that’s still a record at $20 billion lost. It’s early days.

It’s the Roaring ’20s all over again! At least that party started after the Spanish flu pandemic had actually ended. Though festivities did last a decade until the Great Crash of 1929.

With everything now hyped up to warp speed, we might not have to wait so long for the hangover.

Peter Fray

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