THE DISTILLERY: Blue steel

One jotter fires a warning in the wake of BlueScope's China caution, while another highlights the cost of Qantas strikes.

It was hard to ignore the $530 million loss posted by BlueScope Steel, which really brought home the meaning of the phrase "radical restructure”. But as The Australian’s Barry Fitzgerald points out, the steelmaker’s chief executive Paul O’Malley is an obviously keen watcher of the Chinese steel market, and by extension its input demand – which means iron ore and coal. O’Malley isn’t calling the end of the boom, but he has some rather cautious words that our cashed-up miners and idealistic left-leaning politicians should take note of. Meanwhile, Lend Lease chief executive Steve McCann is still to adequately explain to investors how he will reinvigorate the share price, says one commentator, while the strategies of Australian unions and private equity firms come up for separate discussions.

But first, The Australian’s Barry Fitzgerald says the big three iron ore miners and the Gillard government are all hoping for iron ore prices to stay higher for a while, which means the latest comments from BlueScope Steel chief executive Paul O’Malley won’t be very encouraging.

"O'Malley did not ring the bell for the end of the iron ore boom but he did the next best thing by saying growth in Chinese demand for iron ore had abated and its steel production was expected to stay within the range of 600 million to 700 million tonnes this year. He based that call on his own reasoning, of which there is no real doubt – Chinese companies respond very well to price signals. And as the steel industry lobby group in China reminds us daily, only a very small part of the massive steel industry there is actually making money.”

The Australian Financial Review’s Chanticleer columnist Tony Boyd says Lend Lease chief executive Steve McCann is still to deliver a strategy to rebuild the company and rescue its share price from its plateau which resonates with shareholders.

"One problem facing the company is its complexity. Analysts have told Chanticleer that it is very difficult to predict the company’s performance or model how its earnings may end up. However, just because the company does not give guidance does not mean it is not able to model its forward numbers. The complexity of the business is evident from the continuing provisions the company is making for investigations in New York into the company’s 'billing practices of the construction business and its use of minority-owned enterprises'. The provisions now total $34 million.”

The Australian Financial Review’s Matthew Stevens explains how the engineers union that Qantas got into a hefty tussle with late last year employed industrial actions that appear harmless – like one-minute stoppages and working with non-preferred hands – but the impact was significant.

"Now you could be forgiven for thinking these are pretty amusing ideas. Certainly, given the strategic theme of industrial action is that management’s pain should always outweigh the workers’ sacrifice, they were ingenious. For example, as Qantas made clear in its submission to the review of the Fair Work Act, the cost of deducting that one minute from the strikers’ pay packets far outweighed any lost income for the workers while the company exposed itself to the certain risk of prosecution "for any error in calculating the deductions involved.’”

The Australian’s Bryan Frith points out an increasingly frequent strategy from suitors – employed most recently by TPG Capital during its run at Billabong International – of leaking a proposal (not a firm bid) to the media not long after handing it to the target.

"This has become a common tactic by potential bidders. If a target board does not immediately disclose an approach it is leaked to the media, which often triggers a query from the ASX as to whether there has been an approach and, if so, whether confidentiality has been breached, requiring disclosure to the market. That's despite the fact that in most cases these approaches do not constitute an offer, but are expressed to be no more than a proposal, from which the proponent has an unfettered right to walk away. They are almost universally expressed to be non-binding and indicative and often accompanied by a number of conditions, so it's arguable that disclosure does not bring about an informed market but merely creates unwarranted speculation."

Sticking with M&A news for the rest of this morning’s commentaries, The Australian’s John Durie says Australian Competition and Consumer Commission chairman Rod Sims has only been in the job six months, and yet he’s contemplating perhaps the two most important deals he’s likely to see in the position – Foxtel-Austar and the NBN. The Age’s Adele Ferguson says Amcor’s gutsy decision to pick up Alcan Packaging and Bell Plastics during the depths of the global financial crisis has "paid off in spades”.

In company news, The Age’s Eric Johnston finds Bendigo and Adelaide Bank chief executive Mike Hirst resisting the urge to cut jobs while his bank writes mortgages that are, at current funding levels, unprofitable. The Australian’s Tim Boreham has a look at NIB Holdings, Avita Medical and Bendigo & Adelaide Bank in his Criterion column.

The Australian’s Glenda Korporaal sits through Australian Securities & Investment Commission chairman Greg Medcraft’s address to the regulator’s "summer school,” as did Fairfax’s Insider columnist Ian McIlwraith.

The Sydney Morning Herald’s Ian Verrender says the latest retail shutdown – this time at the hands of Solomon Lew’s Premier Retail – is an example of Charles Darwin’s great theory at work.

And finally, the Herald Sun’s Terry McCrann delivers a rather undignified spray at Prime Minister Julia Gillard and her predecessor Kevin Rudd.

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