Tuesday, February 23, 2016

Asian shares fall as Saudi Arabia rules out production cuts; Bank of England may cut interest rates to zero; As mining cools, Australia turns to agriculture

1 Asian shares fall as Saudi Arabia rules out production cuts (Straits Times) Asian shares retreated on Wednesday as a nascent recovery in the oil market lost momentum after Saudi Oil Minister Ali Al-Naimi effectively ruled out production cuts by major producers anytime soon.

MSCI's broadest index of Asia-Pacific shares outside Japan extended earlier losses to fall 1.1 per cent as of 10:46 am Singapore time, slipping further from Monday's six-week high. Japan's Nikkei shed 0.7 per cent on the drop in oil prices and as the stronger yen weighed on exporters. Chinese shares opened higher but surrendered the gains, with the CSI 300 index down 0.1 per cent and the Shanghai Composite little changed.

Mr Naimi told oil executives that markets should not view the agreement by four major oil producers to freeze at the January level as a prelude to production cuts. While Mr Naimi said he was confident more nations would join the pact, Iran was seen as unlikely to agree to the output cap, which does not allow Iran to regain the market share it lost during sanctions.

The toll from low oil prices is also spreading to banks that have exposure to the energy sector, as roughly a third of US shale oil producers are at high risk of slipping into bankruptcy this year, according to a study by Deloitte. JP Morgan, the largest US bank by assets, said it will increase provisions for expected losses on energy loans by $500 million, or more than 60 per cent of its existing reserves.

2 Bank of England may cut rates to zero (Phillip Inman in The Guardian) The Bank of England could cut interest rates to zero, but will seek to avoid following Sweden, Denmark and the eurozone by setting negative rates to bolster growth and inflation.

Mark Carney, the Bank’s governor, said Threadneedle Street had “no intention and no interest” in implementing negative interest rates and would adopt the full range of the Bank’s other powers to deal with a downturn in the economy.

He said: “If we were in a position where the economy needed additional stimulus ... we could cut interest rates towards zero. We could engage in additional asset purchases, including a variety of assets. Carney said the world economy had entered a period of low growth and low interest rates and was likely to be prone to financial shocks.

He added that Threadneedle Street might need to respond with additional stimulus measures, but to protect the profitability of the UK’s banks and building societies, the monetary policy committee (MPC) would avoid cutting from the current base rate of 0.5% to below zero.

The message that negative interest rates would be a last resort comes before an expected push by the European Central Bank to deploy the measure on a bigger scale at its next meeting to increase lending and growth in the eurozone. Japan and Switzerland have also adopted negative interest rates in recent months.

3 As mining cools, Australia turns to agriculture (Karishma Vaswani on BBC) Asia has become a major buyer of Australian agricultural products. Australia sold a record $600m of beef to China in 2015, and that growth shows no signs of slowing, with China's appetite for beef expected to soar to 2.2 million tonnes by 2025.

The push into agriculture couldn't come soon enough. Recent reports forecast a worrying economic future for Australia, despite it having had 25 years of consecutive growth.vThe Committee for Economic Development of Australia (CEDA) says Australia is facing hazards it hasn't seen in its economy in more than 20 years.

The end of the mining boom, and a dependence on China are both reasons why Australia is suffering, which is why the government is so keen to keep agricultural exports to Asia growing. But Australia's agricultural exports are only worth a third of what coal and iron bring to the economy.

Even if Australia tried to be the food bowl of Asia, it only produces food enough to feed its own country and another 80 million people. That's not enough to feed neighbouring Indonesia, let alone the whole of Asia. Australian producers say though that they're not trying to satisfy the entire region's needs - it's just the 1% or 2% at the top who they want to sell their premium products to.

Australia has been burned before by hitching its fortunes to Asia, and in particular to China. First Australia sold coal and iron to the Chinese, now it is trying to sell lettuce and beef. But as Asia slows down, that could hurt farms and feedlots here in the future.

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