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Hoax another red flag on market manipulation

8 Jan 2013 THE AGE - ERIC JOHNSTON


AROUND lunch time on a hot January day was the perfect time for environmental activist Jonathan Moylan to set about causing a minor stir on the nation's financial markets.

From his bush camp at Leard State Forest in New South Wales' Liverpool plains, Moylan was behind the fake press release claimed to be issued by ANZ that said a $1.2 billion loan facility to help Whitehaven Coal build a new mine had been pulled.

The fake release cited concerns about the impact the mine would have on agriculture and the environment and added the bank was reviewing its approach to funding coal and gas projects near sensitive areas.

Moylan and his environment group Front Line Action on Coal admitted to the hoax, motivated by what they say would be damage set to be caused by Whitehaven's Maules Creek project near Narrabri in NSW.

(For its part, Whitehaven says it is committed to the sustainable development of its coal reserves and the planned mine meets all environmental approvals.)

The press release read like the real thing. However there were several red flags. Banks don't usually go about advertising the fact they have pulled a financing facility. They leave that to the company.

Even if they did, it's not the head of corporate sustainability (named in the press release) that does the talking over controversial banking decisions. It's the executive in charge of the business - in this case, either institutional banking boss (Alex Thursby) or ANZ's Australian boss (Phil Chronican).

Finally, such a statement would have come from the Australian Securities Exchange's announcement platform, rather than an emailed press release. Still, it was good enough to leave some running with it and wipe more than $300 million off Whitehaven's market capitalisation.

Perhaps unwittingly Moylan tapped broader investor fears stalking Whitehaven. The cooling commodity cycle has made the financing of big-ticket projects vulnerable. At the same time, the contested Whitehaven register has left a large question over what 22 per cent shareholder and under-pressure coal baron Nathan Tinkler is likely to do with his stake.

With many fund managers and brokers still on a break and turnover on the exchange a fraction of average levels, the losses could have been far deeper. Even so, this marked the third time in recent months that an ASX listed company has been jolted by a hoax.

Last year shares in David Jones soared after its board disclosed a fake approach, purported to be from a British private equity firm. Then just a few months later construction and mining contractor Macmahon Holdings was targeted.

Although Moylan's motivation was clear, it again shows how fragile the trust is that underpins financial markets. It also leaves niggling doubts that rogue traders can easily use fake takeover bids or false statements as a ploy to profit illegally from movements in the market.

Timetable dilemma

BANK regulator the Australian Prudential Regulation Authority will now consider whether it will still push ahead with its timetable of having tougher new rules requiring banks to hold substantially more liquid assets by its existing deadline of January 2015.

Over the weekend, the global bank regulator, Swiss-based Basel Committee, pushed out its timeline surrounding standards on liquidity by four years to 2019. The Basel Committee, of which APRA is a member, also broadened the definition of what counts as liquid assets.

While APRA has long argued for tougher standards, the Basel decision marks a concession among global regulators about the link between lending and growth. Banks have warned the tough Basel standards could stall any economic recovery, something that is a significant medium-term issue for policy makers in Europe and the US.

Even so, Mervyn King, the outgoing governor of the Bank of England and chairman of the Basel group, insisted the changes were not aimed at making life easier for banks. Rather, he said the new rules were now more "realistic".

After the requirement to hold more capital, liquidity complements the reforms under the Basel 3 changes designed to make banks safer. In this case the changes are aimed at having banks fund themselves for up to 30 days if global money markets freeze up again.

Liquidity is significant as it is the first out the door when a bank is under financial stress. At the peak of the financial crisis willingness among banks to lend to each other evaporated and many found they did not have enough cash or assets that could be sold quickly to meet short-term funding obligations.

APRA has taken a more conservative line when it comes to implementing Basel rules and this meant Australia was one of the first jurisdictions to meet the capital rules from the start of this month.

Bank executives here argued stricter requirements will be harder to meet and are likely to lift financing costs, which they must pass on to customers. But APRA has been quick to use Europe as an example of the bigger cost the taxpayer and the economy faces for a bank sector not in sound health.