Markets: Craig James – market muscle

The pin-up CommSec economist says Australians must be careful not to talk their way into recession.

Few men, let alone an economist at 49 years of age, can boast of being selected by Australia’s Men’s Health magazine as one of their top six, ultimate, every day men of 2011.

The physical profiles of economists usually evoke comparisons to pears rather than to Manpower dancers. CommSec’s chief economist Craig James, now 51, still has the ripped physique of two years ago judging by a figure hugging Peter Jackson dark pin-stripe suit that caresses, ahem, pert pectorals and six-pack abs.

But the blue-eyed James’ manner is not one of an alpha male. Over hot chocolate, he also eats cheesecake and regularly has a glass of wine, the Sydney born and bred James exudes normalcy.

James grew up in a nondescript brick house in the city’s southern suburb of Beverly Hills. He describes his family as a model for former Prime Minister John Howard’s description of the Australian middle class. After schooling at Narwee Boys’ High, James joined Rural Bank in 1980 at 18 years of age. Commonwealth Bank subsequently absorbed Rural Bank. James can boast of having worked at essentially one place for almost his whole career. He did have a 12-month sojourn in journalism more than a decade ago.

The loyalty to Commonwealth Bank is reflected in James’ personal life. He has been married to the same woman for 27 years. James’ wife and three children suggested he should enter the Men’s Health competition. His wife took the picture of James, sans top, clad only in jeans, which piqued the interest of Men’s Health editors.

James was asked to participate in a 2½ day competition with 11 others. Men’s Health made an assessment of their competitors’ physical attributes, driving prowess, cooking, style and lifestyle. Six competitors were eliminated. James, this time fully clothed, made it to a dinner honouring the final six at the Hilton Hotel.

Among the most widely quoted analysts on markets and the economy, James and his colleague Savanth Sebastian arrive for work by 5am. Their first TV report is at 6.05am. Their wrap of overnight trading on global markets is in the email inboxes of recipients by 7.30am. During the day James’ phone is constantly ringing. Many calls are requests by reporters for opinions on the Reserve Bank of Australia’s position on interest rates or asking him to give an opinion on economic data that he’s busily trying to digest and analyse in a note to CommSec customers.

“We’ve got to be careful we don’t talk ourselves into a recession,” says James. “A lot of people think interest rates are low enough. The cash rate is at a 53-year low. If the RBA cuts rates again if may cause people to worry that the economy is worse than it really is. The RBA must be careful its sends the right message.”

He says his travels around Australia speaking to the bank’s clients give him insight into how the economy and business is performing.

Rural Australia, says James, seems to be doing better than urban Australia. Farmers are “getting on” with their work, he says. They are not suffering drought or floods. New farm machinery has been purchased courtesy, until recently, of an Australian dollar that was trading above parity to the US currency. Debt is being paid because interest rates are low.

City slickers, however, are consumed by doubts about the future, says James. Business is holding off investment and hiring until after the next election.  

“I often ask, ‘how’s business?’” says James. “The reply is: ‘it could be better;,” he says.  “We’re treading water until the election.”

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