Corporate Australia has been making an absolute motza over the past year — in dire contrast to workers, who have watched their real incomes deteriorate so much they’re unlikely to make it back to 2019 real wage levels until the late 2020s.
And despite the self-congratulatory hype from company managements and boards (and a lot of “analysis” in the business media) the reasons for the surge in profits are unrelated to managerial ability. Instead, they’re record prices for iron ore and copper and higher oil prices, JobKeeper (and higher JobSeeker) payments, the HomeBuilder boost for housing, and low-cost borrowing from the Reserve Bank.
The JobKeeper windfall for companies — at least $4.6 billion — and refusal to repay it has helped companies across the country pay out dividends, buy back shares and, in the case of the Commonwealth Bank’s Matt Comyn, Seven West Media’s James Warburton and South Cross Austereo’s Grant Blackley, give performance bonuses to executives.
AMP chief economist Shane Oliver says the June 30 half will see “dividend payments on track for a record $30 billion which will exceed the August 2019 record of $27 billion, and adding to this is about $18 billion in buybacks”.
Get Crikey FREE to your inbox every weekday morning with the Crikey Worm.
It’s been a compelling demonstration of what companies do when they receive a windfall — not invest it, not employ more, but hand it to investors and executives. Remember that next time a business executive or Liberal politician calls for a corporate tax cut.
Higher iron ore and copper prices, plus the rebound in oil prices in the six months to June, generated a massive one-off rebound in profits for a small group of companies — records for BHP and Rio Tinto (which between them revealed dividends and special payments to shareholders of more than $30 billion; BHP’s payout includes its December half-year as well), plus Andrew Forrest’s Fortescue Metals, which is due to report a huge profit next Monday.
Oliver says that so far 44% of results have surprised on the upside, which is about normal, but 80% have seen earnings up on a year ago and 75% have increased dividends. “Resources are seeing a doubling in earnings and bank profits are expected to be up by nearly 60%. Dividend growth is coming in at around 57%,” Oliver wrote in a weekend note.
Contrast that 57% growth (which will flow into superannuation account holders, so the rest of us will see some of it, eventually) with the realities of being an Australian worker for one of these companies. In mining, wages grew at 1.5% in 2020-21 (which was also the average private sector wage growth level), or 2.3% below inflation. Financial services industry wages grew at 1.8%, or 2% below inflation. Wages in construction grew just 1.3%. And that’s what public servants got as well.
And what would happen if your average worker, struggling with falling real wages, claimed some income support the government decided she wasn’t entitled to, even incorrectly? You can bet Treasurer Josh Frydenberg wouldn’t be so airily dismissive of the idea that she should repay it.
The pandemic has delivered a two-speed economy — for big corporations, it’s happy days. For workers, anything but.