THE DISTILLERY: Mike fright

Jotters get serious on what might happen if ANZ chief Mike Smith chooses Barclays, while one finds Gina Rinehart is no fan of The Simpsons.

Australian banks are amongst the best in the world, it was only a matter of time before the rest of the world started trying to pinch the people who run them. Australia’s business commentators have a great deal of adoration of ANZ boss Mike Smith, who’s reportedly in the running for the Barclays job. The question some are asking this morning is what happens to ANZ if Smith moves on before realising his Asian super-bank vision?

First, The Australian’s Scott Murdoch writes that Smith isn’t the only Australian banking executive to find their name linked to big overseas firms.

"While ANZ's top brass declined to comment yesterday, the emergence of Smith as a potential candidate came as no shock to many in the local banking industry, given his high profile and a strong reputation earned during the five years he has spent here. Australian banks, despite their smaller scale, are the envy of the global industry. The local sector sailed through the global financial crisis and returns are solid, indicating that banks here know how to manage risk. Australian bankers are well regarded around the world. There was some suggestion that Westpac's chief executive Gail Kelly was once in line for the top job at Lloyds, while her No 2 at Westpac now, Brian Hartzer, ran the British retail banking business of the Royal Bank of Scotland after the global financial crisis.”

Fairfax’s banking writer Eric Johnston asks whether anyone can truly step into Smith’s shoes.

"Since joining ANZ in October 2007, Mr Smith has been on a rolling contract, which means either he or the bank can terminate the contract with up to a year's notice. ANZ is widely viewed as carrying the biggest ‘key-man risk’ - the risk of losing momentum from the exit of a top executive - among Australia's big banks. This is because ANZ's so-called ‘super-regional’ strategy is so interlinked with Mr Smith. ‘There would be a slowdown of their expansion into Asia,'' one investor said yesterday. ‘There would be no one who would be willing or capable to drive it at the speed he's been driving it at.’”

Business Spectator’s Stephen Bartholomeusz agrees that Smith is a prime candidate for the Barclays role.

"ANZ, however, is Smith’s work-in-progress. When he was appointed he was clearly over-qualified for the bank at the time but the fact that he was appointed was a pointer to the bank’s and his ambitions. Since then, of course, ANZ has embarked on a measured Asian expansion strategy – a ‘super-regional’ strategy – and now generates about 20 per cent of its revenues from its Asia Pacific, Europe and America division. Without more acquisitions – and Smith has been very selective and disciplined in the acquisitions he has been prepared to make – the goal of generating 30 per cent of the group’s earnings from the APEA business by 2017 will be difficult. Nevertheless, ANZ has the foundations of a growth business within Asia and Smith has built up a senior team with deep experience in the region in expectation of that growth.”

Meanwhile, The Australian Financial Review’s John Kehoe says ANZ’s institutional and international chief Alex Thursby is next in line for the throne.

"Thursby, an engaging, ambitious and demanding leader, worked for Standard Chartered Bank for 20 years across Hong Kong, Indonesia, Singapore and London. He joined ANZ in 2007 to become a key player in its Asia push, after being courted for around 12 months by then chief executive John McFarlane and then chairman Charles Goode. On a recent investor tour to Asia attended by The Australian Financial Review, Thursby impressed fund managers and analysts with his strategic thinking and enthusiasm for the job. Chief financial officer Shayne Elliot is considered the other leading potential internal successor to Smith and should not be discounted.

The other big story that’s being kicked about by our nation’s business commentators is the ruckus between senior members of the ALP and the Greens.

The Australian Financial Review’s Jennifer Hewett says the uneasy marriage between the two is just entering the first phase of divorce proceedings. The AFR’s Geoff Kitney says the irritant that pushes this tiff into something more serious was the decision by the Greens to vote with the opposition to block any parliamentary reaction to the increase in boat arrivals. And Fairfax’s Melbourne-based economics writer Tim Colebatch dabbles in a little pure-political commentary over the threat by some ALP leaders to cut off the Greens from preferences. PS: He does quite a good job.

While we’re on politics, Fairfax’s Michael Pascoe says weak governments are now less capable of implementing obvious, logical economic reforms because social media has made the force of populism that much stronger. Fairfax’s Insider columnist Ian McIlwraith ridicules a new report by the government on investment fraud. The Australian Financial Review’s Marcus Priest says the really big issue facing Australia in regards to climate change is not the Carbon Tax, but the renewable energy target.

In company news, Fairfax’s Adele Ferguson says Leighton Holdings has offloaded its waste management unit in order to send some of the proceeds in the form of dividends to parent company Hochtief (from Spain) along with its parent ACS (the debt-burdened Spanish company). Fairfax’s Ian Verrender – back from a small break it appears – says the merger between Glencore and Xstrata is in serious danger of falling through. However there are expectations that Glencore boss Ivan Glasenberg, an Australian citizen, will eventually kowtow to wishes from Dubai and increase the compensation for Xstrata. Meanwhile, Fairfax’s Peter Ker brings word of the growing chances of Rio Tinto adjusting its executive remuneration policy and The Australian’s Glenda Korporaal takes a look at Iluka’s share price dive and wonders what that means for China.

Speaking of which, Fairfax’s Peter Cai says Canada is being encouraged to follow Australia’s example of allowing more Chinese investment – they can’t be letting in very much then! In a separate piece, Cai says expectations are increasing that China will opt for more economic stimulus now that the inflation dragon has been tamed.

And finally, The AFR’s James Chessell has a great story about mining magnate and Ten Network director Gina Rinehart explaining to the network’s chairman Lachlan Murdoch how The Simpsons isn’t suitable viewing for families. The Distillery can say with fair certainty that many members of the Business Spectator office would take umbrage at the suggestion. Far from being unsuitable, it should be mandatory.

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