Numbers that tell a story

  • $70 billion agricultural investment as bank loans to farmers
  • $40 billion on warships to be built in Adelaide
  • $2 million average farm debt in Australia
  • $1 a kilo for onions

Numbers in words…

While Australians have the 15th highest per capita GDP in the world [on IMF estimates] and the 5th highest average income among OECD countries, consumers pay next to nothing for their food [around 10% of disposable income].

Ageing farmers work an average 49 hours per week and are in debt up to their eyeballs.

The bankers insure this lending against the land value and know that global demand will keep the price of prime agricultural land high enough for their shirts to be safe.

Rather than provide food security to the region the Australian government invests in warships that the Chinese navy would overrun in the time it takes to order special fried rice.

Subsistence

Lately Conservation International have been asking us all to adopt greater personal responsibility toward nature, because mother nature couldn’t care less about us.

Here is their logic

 

Fair enough. After all there is evidence for this argument. The previous five mass extinctions saw nature come back bigger and more diverse than before. And in time she will again after the current human-induced one.

Meantime there is a snag in the present.

Around half the people on earth grow most of their own food. These are not the new age Nancy types jumping off the grid or the allotment owners escaping their nagging spouses. We are talking about real life people from Bengal to Benin who have few job opportunities, little money, and no choice but to live off the land.

And today there are over 3 billion of them. That’s more than the entire human population in 1950.

These resourceful people perform miracles on tiny parcels of land. Yams, cassava, peanuts, plantains, rice and the like are tended with the care that comes from nurturing your future dinner. Multiple crops are rotated and intermingled to make the most of the soil reserves and to thwart pests and pathogens.

In some places this form of production is fairly secure. It rains enough onto soils that can give and retain nutrients. And with care families can survive on tiny parcels of land for a long time, often for many generations.

Elsewhere no amount of care can prevent soil depletion. And without money for inputs yields decline or become unreliable. Eventually the soil is exhausted and the farmer has to move to pastures new. This is shifting agriculture and it requires an important thing. It needs land.

If your soil is depleted and fails to grow enough food for your family what choice do you have but to move on.

Many move to the cities or send their youngsters in search of a fiscal solution so no surprise that urban populations are expanding. Even a modern city like Sydney is growing at 2,000 people per week. Meantime Lagos, Nigeria has reached 21 million.

Those left behind must either wait for newly urbanised family members to send funds or find a new patch of land to grow some food.

And this is where the Conservation International message of personal responsibility hits a snag. If half the people in the world will need new land sometime soon they will try to find it no matter how much they want to be kind to nature. None can be expected to curl up on their depleted land and sacrifice themselves.

A billion or more people practice shifting agriculture because they have no choice. Starvation is their alternative. Instead they turn to mother nature. They eat from another piece of cleared forest.

The guilt trip of personal responsibility is meaningless when your stomach is empty and your child is malnourished.

 

Liability of disclosure

car-wheelsTony knows something. He glanced down at the floor just before he sat in the passenger seat of his mate Joe’s car. Under the wheel was a rusty nail.

If Joe drives off there is a good chance the nail will puncture the tyre.

“Wait a sec,” Tony says jumping out of the car and removing the nail. “OK, good to go”.

Joe looks across bewildered and drives off barely registering another eccentricity of his old mate. And oblivious to the inconvenience averted.

Tony had no reason to disclose his knowledge of the nail to Joe and as Joe didn’t ask, the incident passed without consequence.

What if Tony noticed the nail but failed to act?

Suppose he sat in the seat unmoved as Joe drove the car over the nail and was forced to spend the next twenty minutes changing to the spare and cussing at the dirt advancing toward his Armani suit.

Joe puts it down to bad luck. These things happen. It didn’t even cross his mind that Tony might have seen the nail and was in a position to prevent the damage and inconvenience.

Tony gets away with what some would consider negligence. If Tony knows that harm will happen if he does nothing then he is obliged to act. Indeed he has a liability if he doesn’t.

Should his mate Joe find out that Tony knew about the nail and didn’t get off his butt to remove it, Joe is annoyed at least and more likely will clock his mate on the nose. No more free lifts for Tony.

More important than the event is the loss of trust from failing to disclose. Joe will always have a nagging doubt about Tony’s integrity.

This is a classic moral dilemma that philosophers have pondered for generations. The problem with knowing is when and what to disclose, to whom, and with what repercussions. The legal profession has dined out at the best restaurants on answers they give to the bewildered.

There are murmurs that the risks to business from a changing climate are a nail under a tyre that everyone knows is there. Directors and trustees cannot be a negligent and not act on what they know. They are liable for this knowledge and required to disclose.

Sarah Barker has written an excellent article explaining what it all means for the champions of business — directors duties in the anthropocene — that won a Sustainalytics Awards for Excellence from the PRI in 2014.

Meantime I wonder if Tony knows what failure to act might bring beyond the loss of a mate.

Persuasion

After 17 hours of negotiation there is a deal. And not the one most people expected. The Greek prime minister is persuaded into accepting a bailout.

Perhaps this was always going to be the outcome. The 17 hours was just a haggle over the details. Or maybe it really was a period of intense negotiation. Only the people who were there have any chance of knowing.

Except the psychologists tell us that we make most decisions in a split second. The new handbag is after all just a click away. Our brains think fast on such matters. Instinct or desire easily and instantly make the decision for us.

Decisions on the fate of a nation must be more methodical. The pros and cons sifted and viewed from every possible angle. You’d think.

Proponents would have to present the options and their consequences, preferably with some evidence. You’d think.

The PM would have to consider, ask many questions and consult with experienced advisors. He’d want to see some numbers. A projection or two on how the deal is likely to pan out. You’d think.

In fact there is no way that 17 hours is enough for serious evaluation. The smartest communicators on the planet could not condense the complexity is so short a time. You’d think.

I have a hunch that actually not much thinking went on, just persuasion.

Or maybe the deal was done already and the talking was just face saving.

Eavesdropping

coffee-cakeHumans really are bizarre creatures. No other animal can be this smart and this blissfully unaware, whilst straining every sinew to be both.

If you get the chance, hang out in a CBD coffee shop for an hour or so.

It will be easy to tap away at your blog posts whilst eavesdropping unnoticed on the conversations of the business types at adjacent tables. You will hear some wonderful stuff.

There is the youngster with a tight haircut and equally tight pants trying to convince the senior exec that there really is something in the deal with the Saudis.

On an adjacent table a female IT consultant is negotiated out of a decent deal by a hard nosed CEO who took patronising to dizzying heights. “Perhaps you can just offer us a fixed price because, you know, when service providers give us an hourly rate price range they always charge at the high end” he suggests without a hint of a facial expression.

Another upwardly mobile CEO, not quite able to pull off the tight pants, holds forth with a real estate agent hoping to sell some office space. After half an hour of grand ideas and growth about to touch the stars, the deal is done for space only slightly larger than a shoebox. The agent is visibly deflated.

Then there is the pretty young woman on the phone to a guy who couldn’t quite make it for lunch. That was sad.

And just to prove I am not the only practitioner of the eavesdropping art, I was astounded to be interrupted in my own sinew stretching pitch to a VC by a lady on the adjacent table who had listened in and just had to tell us what she knew about our idea. That, of course, is breaking every bit of eavesdrop etiquette.

What an hour of surreptitious listening will tell you is that business people are pretty smart. They know a lot about what they do and how to get their own way.

And it will also tell you that people have no idea of anything outside their bubble. They don’t see the end of their own nose let alone the one on the person opposite.

It is quite a skill actually. To be so unaware requires true devotion to your own head. These practitioners of unawareness must live in blissful isolation lest they notice something off message. It is remarkable.

Eavesdropping can be a lot of fun. Choose a coffee shop frequented by the suited and give it a try some time. Nobody will notice you doing it.

Shareholder value

Sydney cityscapeAre you a shareholder? It is hard not to be. If you have superannuation or a term deposit then at least some of your money is invested into business ventures on your behalf. In fact about the only way you can be totally share free is to keep all your money under the bed.

So now that you know you are a shareholder, do you know if you are getting shareholder value?

You can expect it because in most jurisdictions company directors have a legal obligation to maximise shareholder value. Indeed they can be prosecuted for failure to provide duty of care and diligence in this regard. Standard excuses such as denial, honest ignorance, paralysis from uncertainty, business as usual, and ‘we did what they did’ no longer pass muster in the courts [so I am told].

This is reassuring. The decision makers who get hold of our money are supposed to try everything they can to increase its value.

Only the truly trusting would leave it at that. Care and attention does not a dividend make.

Luckily you also have access to evidence to make your own assessment of investment value. When shares are purchased on a stock market, the buyer has information about the company she is buying into.

There is the share price, both the current and historical, that can be compared with other similar businesses.

There is the company website, press releases and, most importantly, there are the company reports. These are annual statements of how the company is governed and how it performed financially during the reporting period.

Sometimes companies will also release other reports on sustainability that say something about performance beyond the bottom line. These help claim values other than fiscal, the social and environmental performance of the firm.

Smart perusal of this information will tell you if the price you paid for the share, its current price plus any dividend, represents value now or if you might need to hold on a bit linger for the value to accrue. All good so long as the information the company releases is reliable and relevant.

Naturally there are rules that bind company directors to declare what they know and penalties applied if they don’t. This should make the evidence appraisal approach a sound way to assess value.

Many a wannabe Warren Buffet has made a mint on this evidence. Warren himself has made billions from an uncanny knack of investing in under valued stock. So with a bit of effort on your part, your shareholding can be valued and used to make a personal decision on value. Make the right buying and selling decisions and you appreciate shareholder value to yourself.

Now let’s complicate the puzzle a little.

Your superannuation is a long play. You don’t want to speculate with your retirement income so those annualised returns and the puts and short tactics of traders are not what you want. You need long-term value.

How can you determine this?

Well under the current disclosure rules this is very hard. The system is designed for short-term gain with returns to shareholders as immediate as possible. Hence value is what you get now, not what might come later.

This immediacy creates many problems. What if you want to know future value should you choose to hang on to your shares?

Historically share value goes up. At least that is what happens to the indices because, in general, as economies generate wealth over time indices of stock tend to rise. This is reassuring especially if you put your nest egg investments into many baskets.

But an index is an approximation from aggregating many stocks. Indices are poor predictors of what a given stock value especially over time.

Run out far enough and most things come and go. Remember when everyone had a Nokia? You would not have picked the trend toward smartphones from Nokia’s annual reports.

Shareholder value in the long run is guesswork, educated at best. You will never really know what that value will be.

And in the end what you value is the money you made.

TV dinners

 

not-a-TV-dinnerI think about far too many things.

My neurons fire at will and so often that thinking too much will be my terminal condition. It would be so nice to switch off all that chatter once and for all, but I fear that particular state of bliss is not mine.

One line of thought that began with a thought about banana pancakes [find the recipe here] led me to an especially odd food related suggestion, namely…

Has the TV dinner been a bigger destroyer of family life than the TV itself?

Along with many others I have always thought that TV watching rates — a little over 3 hours per day for the average Australian — have compromised us all. There is no time to talk over a bottomless cup of tea, to enter impassioned discussion of irrelevancies or to simply sit in each other’s company when in an average lifetime 18 years worth of daylight hours are spent in front of plasma.

The other day we sat with the kids [all now young adults but as parents we still cling on to their youth] and asked questions from Gary Poole’s book “The complete book of questions”. It was amazing how much engagement we all enjoyed as the TV wore a blank hangdog expression in the corner of the room.

It didn’t even matter that after a while the youngest son fell asleep. We all revelled in the discussion that is killed when the TV is on.

All this is well-known. We have had the research to prove that human interaction is an essential that no amount of TV can replace. And anyone brave enough to turn the TV off with more than one person in the room will confirm it to be true. The TV kills our biggest asset — the ability to communicate.

Except my question was really about the TV dinner.

In our house we have cream lounge furniture and were forced to ban eating on the couch. We also turn off the TV when dinner is served. The process of eating together without distractions is too important.

Yes, we eat together. Not only that but we eat the same food.

This is not some trendy new age thing. Everybody used to do it and Italians still do. Sharing food was critical to the bonds that kept us alive for as rather puny mammals we had little chance amidst the cut and thrust of the savanna without trust in each other.

Rather than foster that trust with talk as we share the products of our modern hunting and gathering we have let the TV dinner decide. Kids first, parents later — chips for them and something marginally more wholesome for us.

Produce is now so plentiful that it comes in pre cooked packages that only need the microwave. The dinner requires no preparation and no need for discussion. It can be warmed and consumed right there in front of the box.

The news and current affairs shows make lame substitutes for our own brains as we sit and chew our way to obese oblivion.

So here is my thought…

The TV dinner will bring on the end of the world as we know it.

Not the end of the earth, for no amount of human arrogance and negligence will bring that about, but the end of our current time of plenty.

My logic is this.

We sit and eat in front of banal reality TV where bachelors find love, cooks become chefs and big brother watches random individuals misbehave. This menu eats the time we could use to share experience and understanding, to communicate and think about issues of the day. This lost time of mental plenty will see us starve for solutions when we really need them.

Consequently, the TV dinner will bring on the end of the world as we know it because everyone will die of mental starvation.

The alternative is that we all succumb to smart phone neck.

Either way we are doomed.