Archive | August, 2012

BBC News: How China’s growth ambitions drive global commodities

24 Aug Opal mining in Coober Pedy, Australia. Nothing whatsoever to do with this article except it's a form of mining, and a photo I took myself. 2007.

My latest news feature for BBC Business News Online– published today.

A bit of blather first. What’s kinda funny is that I visited a mine this week – I was at Big Pit in Blanaevon, Wales, on Monday. I’m a big, big fan of mining and visiting mines: I’ve been to the salt mines in Austria, iron ore mine in Broken Hill, Australia, opal and gypsum mines in Coober Pedy, Australia, silver and tin mines in Bolivia and now a coal mine in Wales.

I think it’s fascinating and important to see how the resources we never think about but that shape our lives come out of the ground, and to know the conditions the people who haul it out the ground have had to endure.

I got lucky on the Big Pit tour because one of my fellow tour-takers is a mining engineer having worked extensively in South Africa, and he told us that it is still law in South Africa that every mine must still have a canary. In this technological, safety-savvy era I’d have thought that method of checking for gas build-ups was long gone, but sometimes the simplest, cheapest methods are the best.

On my mine tours I’ve observed every level of safety preparedness – from world-class cutting-edge super machines, down to nil. Right now as you read this on your laptop or mobile, children are mining the raw materials in Latin America, Africa and Asia that will eventually be made into the components that make up your laptop or mobile. And the chances are, they are not wearing any of the safety gear you’d hope, the shoes and clothing you’d hope for very hot/very cold/very wet conditions, may not have access to water or sanitation or proper ventilation as they work, and are likely to be missing out on both education and decent pay and rights. (Let’s not even start on the topic of why children are working at all). So mining is worth reading about as we should not walk through life ignorant of this: though these are not issues I had a chance to explore in the piece below, you can Google all of that stuff and learn at will. Or go and visit a mine.

One more quick note. If you’re interested in the big cheeses running big mining firms, I interviewed the finance director of Rio Tinto, the FTSE-100 resources giant, a couple of years ago. You can read that interview here

And here’s the BBC piece.

Australia’s resources minister, Martin Ferguson, has caused a stir with his assertion that the country’s mining boom, one of the biggest drivers of its economic growth, is “over”.

Opal mining in Coober Pedy, Australia. Nothing whatsoever to do with this article except it's a form of mining, and a photo I took myself. 2007.

Opal mining in Coober Pedy, Australia. Nothing whatsoever to do with this article except it’s a form of mining, and a photo I took myself. 2007.

As he acknowledged, the state of the global economy has depressed demand for Australia’s minerals and led to sagging commodity prices.

But those commodity prices have not just taken a tumble in Australia.

They have fallen globally, seemingly because Chinese economic growth has finally started to slow.

That is in part because European demand for its products has slowed. So China has started to produce less of those products, and needs smaller quantities of raw materials such as iron, copper, zinc and gold to do so.

Could Mr Ferguson’s call on Australian commodities also be true for the global commodities market at large?

Exit the dragon

You know how you so frequently see “Made in China” stamped on the back of your toys, phones, in clothing labels, and on your food packets?

To make that volume of products that quietly dominate our lives, China has had to suck in a huge amount of the world’s commodities.

According to the International Monetary Fund (IMF), in 2010, China consumed 40% of the world’s base metals – aluminium, copper, lead, tin, zinc or nickel, all widely used in manufacturing the gadgets and goods we use every day – and 23% of the world supply of major agricultural crops like wheat and corn.

And to build the cities, roads, ports and factories needed to produce that stuff, China has staged a construction boom – upping its need for commodities even more.

But Chinese policymakers have decided it is time for their economy to move away from that.

Thomas Helbling, a research chief at the IMF, said that China’s latest five-year plan for growth “strives to move the economy from investment- to consumption-driven growth”.

In other words, it wants to stop pumping cash into importing commodities and building infrastructure, and focus on selling products and services to its growing middle class instead.

Changing it up

As China buys less raw material, the effect of its dominance becomes apparent and global prices are now going down.

That is having an impact on economies as a whole, as Australia’s Mr Ferguson suggested.

Australian mining giants recently disappointed the country’s politicians. One, BHP Billiton, said it would put on hold its Olympic Dam extension project, reportedly worth as much as $30bn, which it was hoped would create 25,000 jobs in South Australia.

Some thought BHP Billiton’s decision was evidence of China’s change in growth expectations beginning to impact global demand, and other economies as a whole.

And having been protected from global recession by their mining boom, Australians do not want to hear that this is now under threat.

But BHP Billiton said it thought shrinking commodities demand would stabilise in 2013, including from China.

Ruchir Sharma, head of global emerging markets equity at Morgan Stanley, told the BBC that China’s economy was simply maturing, but that resulting lower global commodity prices could be good for emerging markets.

“China is moving to a much lower growth trajectory,” Said Mr Sharma.

“It is maturing, just as Japan did in the 1970s, [South] Korea in the 1980s and Taiwan’s economy in the 1990s.

“It has become too large to grow that quickly, and it is becoming less commodity intensive.”

Mr Sharma thought lower commodity prices would benefit a lot of developing countries such as Turkey and India, and even developed countries including the US.

And he added that the price of oil was more likely to fall than to keep rising, in his view.

“If China’s slowdown is managed right, it will be OK,” he said.

Supply and demand

One thing that has kept commodity prices high has been the lack of supply to meet a huge growth in demand.

The demand has been fuelled by China’s stellar growth, as it has become a major producer of the mobile phones and cheap T-shirts we use daily.

Commodities businesses all over the world have grown quickly off the back of that demand, making investments in mines, oil exploration, and boosting soybean production in Brazil, among other things.

But those investments often take time to bear fruit.

So commodities companies such as BHP Billiton are now deciding that the reduced demand for their products from China make it harder to justify investing in those projects for the moment.

For example, Jim Rodgers, co-founder with George Soros of the Quantum Fund, told the BBC that a lack of farmers played a starring role in a recent spike in food prices – grain, corn and soybean being critical parts of the food supply chain.

“The main determinant to commodities is supply and demand,” said Mr Rodgers. “We are running out of farmers because nobody has gone into agriculture for the past 30 years.”

The US, France and Mexico have said they may convene an emergency meeting at the end of August to address the high price of grain.

But Mr Rodgers does not think commodity prices will decline.

“I don’t see any significant new supply to bring this bull market to an end,” he said.


From my archive: Finance directors still need convincing on the value of social media

7 Aug Hey, it worked for Mark courtesy Debouge -

While I’m waiting for my next two freelance articles to hit the news-stands, I found this from my archive to share. Looking back it’s amusing that I chose to write this, given that until that time (Christmas 2010), I was a Twitter hater and wrote about it on more than one occasion. But I’ve found as a freelancer that it has actually proven profitable for me – literally – to have my Twitter profile and to update it regularly. I have found work through it. But finance directors see it differently as the piece below found.

Have a read.

Donald Rumsfeld once said there are known knowns, known unknowns and unknown unknowns. But that was one year before the birth of LinkedIn, three years before Facebook went live and five years before Twitter emerged.

Now, the champions of social media networking would have you believe that by plugging in to these and other platforms, known knowns can be challenged – as the Wikileak cables have shown – while known unknowns can become knowns. And anyone who does not want to know who singer Lily Allen hates this week might say the average Tweet is an unknown unknown that would have been better kept as such.

Hey, it worked for Mark courtesy Debouge -

Hey, it worked for Mark Zuckerberg…photo courtesy Debouge –

Celebrity gossip aside, businesses in every sector and all over the world, along with governments and even regulators, have flocked to social media networking sites in the last couple of years. As marketing budgets have shrunk, it has emerged as a free or cheap platform on which to promote known knowns – products, services, opinions and expertise – and understand known unknowns: what their rivals are doing, what their clients want from them, what the next big thing is and what the market thinks of them.

But a list of Twitter accounts run by FTSE-100 companies published by Lance Concannon, a social media consultant, demonstrates how rudimentary many of those efforts still are. The list is littered with that have been updated a few times and then abandoned. But of those that are actively maintained, the value seems clear. BT’s @btcare Twitter is an extension of its customer services operation with 9,623 followers, who seem to use it when they are tired of being on hold with their call centres. Customers tweet them with complaints about billing and connectivity and appear to be answered by real people – and answered swiftly. It makes innovative service delivery into a public relations campaign.

Burberry chief executive Angela Ahrendts retweets when others mention Burberry products, throwing a bit of stardust in the direction of her followers by way of a mention while simultaneously demonstrating how vibrant and active the recently-revived brand is across the world.

Where’s the value?

For finance directors, though, using social platforms does not mean they understand the value of social media.

A survey by Financial Director, taking the views from 256 FDs and CFOs in December 2010, found that it remains largely an unknown unknown with FDs on the topic falling into two distinct camps: the avoiders of social media who are deeply cynical about it, and those who say they have had tangible return on investment (RoI) from it, but can’t necessarily quantify that return. Of the latter group, five percent report a “significant” RoI on social media and 16.4 percent say they have seen positive RoI.

Asking the question again but differently – to double check how much evidence there really is of a return – 12.5 percent said they had seen other tangible non-RoI evidence of social media having a clear business case.

But emotions run high when FDs who say they do not use any social media are asked why. About half of the FDs that took the survey use one or more social media networking platforms. Those that do not often see no reward for the time needed to update them and their immediate nature.

“Anyone who is constantly tweeting cannot actually be doing anything other than typing – so what have they to Twitter about?” asks one. Another thinks that “those who have time to use social networking sites don’t have serious jobs that absorb all available time. There is no return for the time taken updating them.”

Others see it trying to supercede face-to-face business and in the process is attracting the wrong type of interest.

“Personal relationships are everything. Any electronic correspondence is a poor substitute for shaking someone’s hand, looking them in the eye and talking to them,” says one FD. “I don’t think they add value; you get a lot of unsolicited contacts.”

Some see online networking as lacking the confidentiality that drives business deals, particularly for finance.

“Finance is about confidence and confidentiality, which is not a great mix with a broadcast system like Twitter or an intimate one like Facebook,” one FD thinks. “Real networking is something else entirely.” And in the case of Twitter and Facebook, their popularity among teenagers erodes their credibility as a business tool.

“My daughter has set up a Facebook account for our cat. It’s not exactly serious,” one CFO says. That is a fair point and one that means many businesses make blocking access to social media networking sites company policy, allowing only their communications teams to drive company accounts that are so dry in their delivery, they may as well not exist – because no one is listening.

All talk and no teeth? Photo courtesy -

All talk and no teeth? Photo courtesy –

“LinkedIn is great but Facebook and Twitter are not really much use,” one FD reports. “Very large companies can use them for public relations, but finance is confidential; ‘the company is having a fantastic quarter’ is not really appropriate for sharing.” In the eyes of many FDs, Twitter is just noise, blather or gossip.

LinkedIn rules

Contrast those comments with the statistics our survey conjures up. Of the half of respondents that use one or more social media networking platform, almost all are in possession of a LinkedIn profile and 63 percent have a Facebook page. Even more surprisingly against the comments we received about its value, 37 percent have a Twitter account. In terms of the time they spend on them, a sizeable 25 percent use these every single day while 33 percent access them twice a week.

And these are not individuals that have been forced to start tweeting by their companies. Asked what the motivation for setting up these accounts is, most FDs told us it was purely a personal decision: just five percent were compelled to do so by someone senior to them at work.

Those using these platforms in the finance world have found that it is helpful in terms of their career, building profile and connections, as well as for locating and checking the backgrounds of prospective team members. Users of Financial Director’s LinkedIn group start and drive vibrant discussions on a range of issues affecting them, seeking peer advice and experience to make ever more informed decisions.

Businesses that maintain a block on employees accessing social media may be making a mistake. Of the three most recent uses of social media we asked them to share, 17 percent of FDs said they were researching rival companies’ products and services, and 20.4 percent said they were checking out the background and contacts of prospective senior finance employees. That is of immense value to any business. The third use was responding to requests to connect with headhunters or other FDs they view as helpful contacts, either to expand their network generally or because those individuals may prove able to help them into their next role. Indeed, 20 percent had received what they saw as a genuine and credible job offer through relationships forged on social media networks, while one FD had found his current role through a LinkedIn contact.

“LinkedIn is routinely used in my organisation for recruiting. I was recruited through my LinkedIn profile – I could not provide a better endorsement of its power,” he tells us.

Among those comfortable with it, social media networks are providing another way to expand an FDs’ influence and contacts, either by linking up with people they have met in person or with a mutual connection, as a platform to meeting them in person.

Nearly 40 percent of those using social media networks use them to raise their profile as an FD and a further 26 percent use them to get advice from their peers – in the same way a traditional meeting would, but in some cases with people it may have been tough to get an audience with or with those they simply may not cross paths with otherwise.

Old boys’ club

But the problems with social media persist. Some worry that the mode of connecting it provides is a retrograde move, not progress.

“Using a social networking site for recruitment would be divisive and potentially discriminatory. It smacks of a different type of ‘old boys’ club’, ” says one finance director. Another calls networking on social media sites “the lowest form of personal braggadocio.”

And what if someone takes umbrage – or worse, calls their lawyers – over your perfectly innocent tweet? The Independent reported last November that trainee accountant Paul Chambers was convicted of sending a menacing electronic communication having tweeted, in jest, that he would blow up Doncaster’s Robin Hood airport if it did not re-open after heavy snow. He later said he had lost his job as a result.

In the US, reported last July that an IT staffing company had sued a former employee for violating the terms of their non-compete agreement by connecting on LinkedIn with a number of the company’s staff. It said that she had done so on behalf of her new employer. “If Ms Hammernik could be sued for striking up a conversation at a bar with an employee from her former employer, then she can be sued for striking up a conversation with that same employee on LinkedIn,” a reader commented.

Essentially LinkedIn

As for demonstrating the value in social media, LinkedIn comes out the clear winner. Otherwise, the pictured is mixed. Nearly seven percent of FDs responding to our survey said that they view social media as essential to business, 43.5 percent said it was useful sometimes and 28.5 percent said it was not that useful. Twenty eight percent said it was useless to FDs.

One FD reports that his last three uses of social media platforms were to make contact with a former colleague who works for a company his business is targeting for sales – using the contact to get an audience with that target company – to get back in touch with a former client and invite them to lunch – as a way to get them back in his active network – and to search the contacts of his connections for any potential target clients and shortcuts to introductions with them.

That is nothing you would not hope to do offline; it is just that these platforms make it possible and fairly discreet if done well. But that requires a time investment and a willingness to go on the learning curve – and without the hard numbers to report the usefulness of social media, many more FDs than not may find that the concept remains in that unknown unknown category.