Reading the mainstream papers or watching the business news, one could be forgiven for thinking Australia has completely sidestepped the continued global depression, with our miracle economy continuing to perform divine acts. But while residential property continues its irrational bubble, for many Australians, the global financial crisis was very real – ask anyone who has owned shares in Babcock & Brown, Allco, MFS and a host of other collapsed enterprises.
Not only did investors and banks lose billions as Australia’s financial engineers crashed, but hundreds of other companies, including the once venerable Rio Tinto and Australia’s oldest property trust, GPT, desperately raised fresh capital from institutions at prices which would have been unthinkable a year earlier. The pain for retail (or ‘mum and dad’ shareholders) was compounded – not only did they suffer capital losses on their holdings and their dividends drastically reduced, but they were generally unable to participate in highly discounted capital raisings (the fruits of that were shares by a select few institutions).
Last year I spent several months working on what became Pigs at the Trough: Lessons from Australia’s Decade of Corporate Greed. The book covered various examples of corporate governance failings and executive greed, providing ‘lessons’ to help shareholders avoid being caught in the next, inevitable, downturn (which, as Bill Bonner continues to suggest, could happen sooner rather than later).
The biggest story to come out of the spate of Australian collapses is that there was no real story. The bankruptcies of MFS, Allco and Babcock in particular all bore a striking resemblance. All three companies considered themselves ‘asset originators’ – that is, their business was essentially buying stuff and selling it to what was usually a captive satellite fund. Aside from the obvious issue that buying and selling assets like toll roads, coal terminals, hotel chains or Irish telecommunication companies adds no net value to society as a whole, but also, their entire business models largely consisted of charging excessive fees to captive vehicles.
The entire arrangement was made all the more sordid by the fact that the agreements between the mothership and the various satellite companies were intentionally withheld from shareholders. This was all allowed by the ASX. Perhaps coincidentally, various ASX directors also sat on boards like Babcock & Brown (Michael Sharpe) and Brisconnections (Trevor Rowe).
In terms of sheer audacity, the collapse of Babcock & Brown is difficult to top. Led by former tax lawyer Phil Green, Babcock grew from a small leasing business based in San Francisco to a diversified investment bank which at its zenith, had more than $70 billion worth of assets under management. Babcock’s share price grew like a rocket in the late 1990s – rising from $5.00 when floated in 2004 to almost $35 in mid-2007 before the credit crunch took hold.
During that time Babcock’s leading executives, like their investment banking brethren across the globe, gorged from the trough of fees. In four years as a listed entity, Babcock paid its top dozen executives almost $300 million in cash alone, along with a couple of hundred million of (ultimately worthless) shares. The cash remuneration paid was of course – not refundable. Sadly for shareholders, neither were the billions of dollars of losses racked up by the bank through foolish real estate deals and the grossly over-priced purchase of the already highly-engineered Western Australian power company, Alinta.
But it wasn’t only the financial engineers which came crashing down as the market reassessed its tolerance of risk. The high-profile fall of Eddy Groves’ ABC Learning Centers was even more remarkable given the business earned around half of its revenue directly from taxpayers. While Eddy Groves never received a large salary, his company paid more than $100 million to his brother-in-law, Frank Zullo, for untendered maintenance works at ABC’s centres. ABC also paid Austock (the broking house which was partly owned by Groves) around $50 million in investment bank fees.
ABC surprised shareholders, banks and the Singapore Government when it announced that its fabulous business model wasn’t really that fabulous. In fact, the company’s $437 million loss in 2008 dwarfed all the alleged profits that the business ever made.
Then there were the somewhat more predictable collapses – the downfalls of the agribusiness twins – Timbercorp and Great Southern Plantations. Both companies were caught holding illiquid assets as they weren’t able to refinance debt to support their Ponzi schemes.
The biggest problem from Timbercorp and Great Southern was that while their schemes timber and horticulture schemes provided a tidy tax deduction for city folk, many of the schemes didn’t actually make any money. (In 2005 Great Southern admitted in the finest of fine print deep in its Annual Report that the company was funding its schemes after the company realised the woodchips it had harvested were worth less than the costs of planting and maintaining the trees). Great Southern told shareholders the bad news a couple of months after founder and managing director, John Young, sold $30 million worth of shares.
The common link across many of collapses?
Excessive use of debt coupled with almost universally poor governance practices and a remuneration structure geared toward short-term cash bonuses. Have we learned from the mistakes? If the real estate bubble and worldwide government indebtedness is any guide, it doesn’t look like it.
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