BHP digs deep with spending cuts

BHP Billiton's new chief executive, Andrew Mackenzie, has outlined just how deeply he intends to cut into the company's capital expenditure over the next three years - slicing 18 per cent from the 2014 budget, with more to come in 2015 and 2016.

BHP Billiton's new chief executive, Andrew Mackenzie, has outlined just how deeply he intends to cut into the company's capital expenditure over the next three years - slicing 18 per cent from the 2014 budget, with more to come in 2015 and 2016.

In doing so, he has quantitatively fleshed out the extent to which the old BHP Billiton has been replaced by a new regime that is all about sweating the existing assets and projects. It is now all about the company's productivity agenda - cutting costs and enhancing returns from existing projects by increasing margins in an environment where there is no growth in commodity prices .

The heady days of buying future growth are over, as the Scotsman outlined a new era in which projects needed to compete internally for capital.

In a presentation on Tuesday, Mackenzie told investors this new strategy would maximise the return on incremental investment and substantially increase free cash flow.

The news puts question marks over a number of growth projects that have been in the pipeline. The very capital-intensive US shale assets must be under review, and the timing of the Canadian potash expansion could also be moved out.

The news will receive a vote of appreciation from investors who have been arguing for major mining companies such as BHP and Rio Tinto to pull back on capital expenditure and focus attention on delivering capital to shareholders.

During his speech, Mackenzie hinted the company would be considering returning more cash to shareholders. It will reinforce the concerns that the capital investment from the mining boom has peaked. For BHP, this peak was in 2012 and now continues to move into decline.

Falling numbers

A curious survey was released on Tuesday showing that almost half of Australia's finance professionals - a group dominated by investment bankers - intend to move to a different employer this year.

It was one of those expectation surveys that can reveal a lot about intentions rather than a historical look at what has taken place.

Undertaken by global career site eFinancialCareers, the survey found the main reasons for people wanting to leave were a lack of career progression, the perception that someone else would pay them more, and missed recognition.

A similar survey was done last year, and the percentage of finance professionals who intended to leave was even greater.

Unfortunately, there is no accurate survey that will tell us how many of the disaffected investment bankers, fund managers and stockbrokers actually moved. The reality is - probably not many of them. Indeed, since the global financial crisis and in the past few years in particular, the movement of these financial professionals is more likely to be out of the industry altogether or out of a job.

The desires mapped out in this survey reflect fantasy thought bubbles for many in the finance industry. For the most part, those who have retained their jobs to date may desire to move on but are not able to do so.

Investment banks, fund managers and stockbrokers are shedding jobs through sackings or attrition. There are very few instances of hirings.

Thus those more experienced players are sitting still rather than moving around, which is leaving little room for junior operatives to advance.

Staff cuts are speculated to be more than 10 per cent over the past 18 months and growing as firms grapple with a revenue slump due to subdued trading activity and a near non-existent IPO market, while deal flow and merger and acquisitions activity have been reduced to a trickle.

Despite a generally more bullish sharemarket this year, the rise in the value of the index has not been matched by a rise in the volumes of shares traded.

The wholesale staff cuts may have eased a little this calendar year but the net numbers of investment bankers and stockbrokers will still be falling.

Investment banks will admit to this but none want to get too detailed about numbers.

The large trading banks can't have absorbed these professionals because they, too, have been busy cutting great swaths from their workforce.

The only listed investment bank in Australia, Macquarie Group, is said to have lost 1585 jobs last year - representing 13 per cent of the total.

Others have been culling staff more quietly, wanting their cost-cutting to remain under the radar.

Many of those left behind are dealing with the prospects of zero (or little) bonus and no material advancement in an industry they joined with the expectation of handsome rewards.

So it is not particularly surprising that the survey reflects an industry whose participants are looking to move out. Last year, they were looking to the mining and IT industries as potential employers.

But for the most part, they are stuck or moving to the ranks of the new, hidden white-collar unemployed.

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