Managing collateral damage

Blaming banks for rural debt is like blaming McDonalds for obesity

FARMERS are where we are in Australia today because of the choices we’ve made. Business decisions that justify taking on debt given the geography, historical data and terms of trade for areas concerned are ‘ballsy’ to say the least.

If you want to enjoy the fruits of financial leverage, you have to be willing to pay the price. If the price you are prepared to pay doesn’t include your property, don’t write it in as collateral into a commercial contract with a bank. For some, this will be telling you how to suck eggs - for others, this may be a painful truth you are learning the hard way.

“A tough conversation is needed, not more emotive hype”

Last week seemed a week of wins for agriculture, farm businesses drowning in debt, the federal government and some vet from Toowoomba.

Barnaby Joyce put his foot down and shook a fist at the big four banks. One bowed and Australians saw the government that many love to hate finally get a run on the board. It was a win for the “shocked, humiliated and penniless farmers” that now live like “hunted refugees”. These were the words of Queensland veterinarian, Dr David Pascoe. You should read some of his eloquent tales of misfortune, spammed across Australian social media. With such fulsome narratives to hand, who would read novels?

As a result of either the recent rural debt summit, a cranky press release from Bob Katter, a well-orchestrated Facebook campaign backed by a radio personality or a calculated business management decision (you be the judge), ANZ announced it would freeze foreclosures on drought-affected farmers and also supply a few other forms of relief. What a noble deed... or was it? I’d like to know if the costs incurred by this new strategy from the ANZ bank will be written off under ‘bad debt expense’ or ‘marketing’ in their financial statements - my guess is the latter.

“Deferring foreclosures until next Christmas will do very little to help the sector”

As for Dr Pascoe, with the help of his mate Alan Jones he has gained a large following on social media, composed largely it seems of digital rubbernecks and melodramatic magpies obsessed by shiny things like anti-commercialism. Anyone can start a stampede, but what really counts is what you do with that energy, and to date I’ve not seen any contribution made by those enjoying the publicity wagon that addresses the real threat.

That's the issue of around $66 billion debt tied to the ankles of rural Australia. A tough conversation is needed, not more emotive hype.

It’s no surprise we’re in drought, that’s an inevitable part of farming in Australia. Nigel Austin, South Australian award-winning rural journalist, said in his 1986 book Kings Of The Cattle Country: “They were men hardened by deprivation in the driest and least inviting continent on earth; men second to none in survival skills, superb stockman and tending more towards fatalism than bravado”. These men ran cattle in the north over 130 years ago and struggled in the very areas we see struggle today. This is why those businessmen, like James Tyson and Sidney Kidman, bought properties elsewhere to drought-proof their business.

Banks foreclosing on farm businesses or any business is also not a surprise. They are businesses, not charities, and owe much to their shareholders who have an interest in their returns. Simple stuff. Blaming banks for rural debt is like blaming McDonalds for obesity. They don’t force you to eat their food.

“Unsurprisingly the banks will want to clear that bad debt and minimise their risk”

Laura Eadie, a research director for the Centre for Policy Development, stated in a Submission to the 2014 Financial System Inquiry: “Agricultural lending has outpaced production twofold since 2001. This means farm land prices have inflated beyond what farm economics justify – with the risk of widespread default in times of drought. There is an estimated $5 billion of bad debt held by major commercial banks”.

Unsurprisingly the banks will want to clear that bad debt and minimise their risk. Much of the media and flagbearers like Dr Pascoe would have you believe that these farmers are going about their daily business when the bank rocks up, demands their keys and gives them a week to pack. Foreclosures usually take up to two years, following a process of considered mediation and exploration of options between the business owners and the bank. It’s a last resort, the last decision, the last transaction, but many would have you believe its the only one. If you read an annual report from one of the big four, they detail their focus around “strategy to maintain well-diversified credit portfolios focused on achieving an acceptable risk-return balance.” It’s stated there for you, clear as day.

“Unfortunately many farm businesses set and forget ... There’s not enough fat in the system for that”

I asked James Walker from Agrihive for his thoughts on debt. James is also manning a property that’s been 23 months without rain in Longreach, Qld.

“Unfortunately many farm businesses set and forget. Unlike their bank, they set up a financial product and rarely review or revisit," he said.

"The interest starts to compound and the market may drift away from the initial rate which jeopardises the buoyancy of their enterprise. There’s not enough fat in the system for that.”

And that’s before we consider our dismal terms of trade and rainfall variability. Throw in a ban on live export and we have the beginnings of a really big problem, made worse by the fact too many farm businesses have been borrowing against the hope of future growth of the assets and extending their risk beyond their potential to repay.

James went on to say that the key to solving the rural debt problem is to empower producers with the best possible knowledge on their individual situation so they can draw a line in the sand on what’s best for their business.

“If you’re not equipping the borrowers with the right tools to make decisions, then even macro decisions that attack issues like policy or bank function leave these farm businesses open to being consumed by the market,” he said.

Ultimately the farm business manager has to make the decision on what’s best for them, their dependants, the property and business. James argues rallying for macro changes is critical but must be underpinned by enabling micro performance. “The farmer will defend the business interests at the lending end and not the repayment end if we can enable change in this space," he said.

Deferring foreclosures until next Christmas will do very little to help the sector, as there need to be some big changes around weather, markets, business management and property values to make change enough to keep bank shareholders happy. And if all those stars align, it will take the better part of a decade.

What are your thoughts?

Sam Trethewey

Sam Trethewey

grew up farming down south and now commentates on agriculture across Australia
Date: Newest first | Oldest first


16/12/2014 8:59:27 PM

Wow. Totally in awe of the man called Sam. In awe of the fact Sam has no idea! Get out there in the real mix of it Sam, no need to wordsmith your article. Meet the people, see how hard they have been trying. Meet them face to face, in person. Then tell them what you have written in your article, to their face rather than in a newspaper. I could never respect a man who seems to never have had a hard day's work in his life, over that of a true Australian man and his family, trying so damn hard. With all due respect, I doubt it is something you have had to do.
17/12/2014 6:32:22 AM

What is an Agsoc, Bushie Bill? Anyone who cares about something other than themselves and maybe lives in an area where outside influences other than management resulted in a business failure. Lucky you don't live near them or you too would be looking for help, Get rid of Australian farmers and replace with whom? Get off the high horse.
17/12/2014 6:48:36 AM

Geronimo, I agree with you on that. Physical skills, and the ability to work hard, is what employees have. If you want to be a business owner financial literacy, and the ability to assess and be proactive with financial risk is vital. People have placed far too much trust in their banks in that regard.
17/12/2014 7:25:26 AM

Interesting parallel about maccas - obesity and banks - rural debt. There is an issue of moral hazard in our society. Regulators of all types have a responsibility to ensure safety of its citizens. The parallel of skyrocketing disease rates and diet changes, is not unlike skyrocketing credit/debt availability as a result of lending conditions changing. It's too easy to blame the individuals, how about the issue of moral hazard which has been created by ignoring sky rocketing diseases and credit availability be put back on to our regulators. In both instances the public purse will bear the cost.
17/12/2014 7:58:29 AM

Thanks Qlander. As an observation, I think many enterprises have outgrown the local accountant and the local bank manager. Industry consolidation means these very large businesses are in dire need of high levels of financial governance and not getting it/seeking it.
Independent Farmer
17/12/2014 8:56:15 AM

Sam, once again you have written a superbly rational article. The agriculture industry suffers, more than most, a hyperbolic claim of hardship, which in the past has tugged on the heart strings of those in urban areas. Now, society is starting to question those claims and the blow back can be nasty by those making them, evidenced by some of the highly emotive, retaliatory comments. The tightening terms of trade in agriculture will purge those with this continual chip on their shoulders; that someone else owes them a living...and it cant happen quick enough. The whinging farmer is damaging ag!
17/12/2014 9:22:58 AM

The victim mentality and culture that is RIFE in rural Australia is desperate! Thank you Sam for being brave enough to say this out loud!
Frank Blunt
17/12/2014 9:36:09 AM

Bushie has the knives out again but its not for the Christmas turkey.
17/12/2014 9:56:20 AM

"Farm land values have inflated beyond what farm economics can justify", so all you blokes that think farming in Australia is a business in this current economy should keep you psychiatrist on speedy dial. It's a rich man's hobby at best and to treat it differently is a recipe for disaster.
17/12/2014 10:14:27 AM

Geronimo; Yes, most local bank managers were still playing with toys during the last market rural crash (early 90s). One of the core problems with Ag, is the automatic reliance on banks for long term capital investment. No other industry does that.
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Get MuddyTo think clearly in farming and about farming, you need to get muddy - commit, roll up your sleeves and get involved. SAM TRETHEWEY gets stuck into some of the issues facing those on the land.


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