Monthly Archives: May 2019

How to slash your power bill by $2700 with one phone call

Clunes resident Russell Mills. Selection of electricity bills over a twelve month period. 4 January 2016. Photo Jacklyn Wagner. Story Lucy Cormack
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Rising energy costs are the biggest financial concern for consumers in 2018, according to a recent survey by Canstar.

The Consumer Pulse Report found 30 per cent of consumers were more worried about rising electricity and gas prices than any other financial issues, including job security and interest rate movements.

This summer will see energy prices hit their highest levels ever, putting households under further pressure as bills soar.

So how can you minimise your power bills and protect yourself from rising energy prices? Shop around and negotiate hard

Minimising the amount you pay for power is the most effective way to reduce your electricity bill, and switching providers or negotiating with your existing provider is the best way to do it.

The Canstar Blue Energy Insights Report, which compared 113 electricity plans in NSW and Victoria, found the cheapest plan cost $1800 per year, while the most expensive cost $4500, based on a five-person household. Put simply, changing your electricity plan could save you $2700 per year.

The report also found 45 per cent of consumers don’t think they are getting a good energy deal. According to Canstar Blue Editor Simon Downes, consumers need to be proactive to get lower rates, and fortunately, retailers are willing to negotiate.

“Retailers would rather keep you as a customer and make a bit less money from you than not have you as a customer at all,” he said.

But to get the absolute cheapest electricity deal, you need to be prepared call your retailer’s bluff and actually switch providers, which 41 per cent of consumers have never tried.

“The retailers always have a fallback position they can offer their customers. To make sure you’re getting them into that position, it doesn’t hurt to put the wheels in motion to actually go and switch retailers.”

Standard energy contracts have a 10 working day cooling-off period, so even if you find a better deal than your current provider can offer, it’s not too late to switch back if they manage to beat it.

“You can bet your bottom dollar that if your retailer hasn’t offered you their lowest deal, they’re going to if you’ve already switched,” Mr Downes said.

However, switching providers might not be an option for consumers in Tasmania, the Northern Territory, Western Australia and parts of Queensland, where the number of retailers is limited. Make your own electricity

One in six homes have solar panels installed, and solar systems are becoming more affordable, with electricity providers and banks offering customers incentives that can reduce the price to as low as $1500.

The average cost of a medium-sized solar system is $6200, and according to SolarQuip principal Glen Morris, it will pay for itself within five to 10 years, depending on usage patterns.

“The best benefit is for people who use energy when the sun shines,” he said. “The payback is much quicker, we’re talking four years or so.”

Batteries can further lower bills by allowing solar power to be used at night. But at about $10,000 each, it can take a decade to recoup the cost.

Solar Citizens campaigner Stephanie Gray said homeowners should investigate whether state and local governments can help fund their solar system. “The upfront cost of installing solar is a barrier for many low-income households, but some state governments do provide assistance loans.” Minimise your energy consumption

Air conditioners, ovens and refrigerators are some of the biggest power drains in a home, and Mr Morris said efficient appliances are worth the higher price tag. “Always look for the best star-rated appliances. Within a couple of years you’re ahead.”

Mr Downes said behaviour change is the key to cutting consumption. “You need to get into the mindset that whenever you’re using something in the house, it’s costing you money.”

While minimising consumption may be effective in high usage households, Mr Downes said consumers in small households should pay particular attention to daily supply charges, as lowering power usage will have minimal effect on bills if supply charges remain high.

“Daily supply charges can vary from 90?? to $1.30 per day. Those are costs you are paying regardless of your energy usage.” Top 5 ways to minimise power consumption

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The fastest NBN speed plan is falling out of favour

The highest-speed plan on the national broadband network is becoming a tough sell for telecommunications companies amid concerns the risks and costs are outweighing the benefits.
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A combination of discounts for the slower 50 Mbps speed plans, action by the regulator over unachievable speeds and a budget-sensitive public has industry sources warning 100 Mbps speed plans might not be offered by major telcos in the future.

Some carriers had already stopped offering 100 Mbps plans, said Joseph Hanlon, spokesman for comparison site WhistleOut, which audits about 40 per cent of NBN plans.

Its latest audit found Vocus Group providers iPrimus and Dodo dropped these plans from their sites in late-2017.

It’s understood one of the main reasons for dropping these plans was lack of customer take-up, with the brands targeting the budget end of the market.

In 2017, more than 80 per cent of NBN users were on speeds of 25 Mbps or less – the lowest plans available.

Now that the NBN has provided wholesale discounts on its 50 Mbps speed tier range, telcos have moved quickly to drop prices for this plan, or bump customers on 25 Mbps plans into a faster tier.

This has seen the take-up of 50 Mbps plans jump from less than 3 per cent to about 30 per cent, while the percentage of new orders for 100 Mbps plans remains stable at about 9 per cent of all orders. There was no NBN discount on 100 Mbps speed tier, though there are bandwidth discounts across speed plans.

Australia’s fixed internet recently ranked 55th in the world, behind countries like Austria, Slovenia, Czech Republic and Kazakhstan, with an average speed of 25.88 Mbps.

The focus on 50 Mbps product, with no change to 100 Mbps, had MyRepublic managing director ANZ Nicholas Demos warning his company might stop selling the top tier, because the 50 Mbps products were significantly more attractive to sell.

To date, MyRepublic has sold only the fastest-speed plans, but flagged the introduction of 50 Mbps products this month.

Angus Kidman, spokesman for comparison site Finder, agreed the current discount structures made selling 50 Mbps plans more appealing and was not surprised that it did “appear that some providers are dumping the 100 plans”.

“Given the widespread perception that NBN plans don’t deliver maximum speeds, the push from [the regulator] to make sure providers advertise ???realistic’ speeds and the relatively low-demand for high-priced 100 deals, it makes sense that providers aimed at the cost-sensitive end of the market might decide it’s safer and easier to just not offer the high-speed packages.”

Industry sources also mentioned increased scrutiny from the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC) as a major factor.

Thousands of Fibre To The Node (FTTN) and Fibre To The Building (FTTB) customers are set to be compensated after it was found last year they could not get the speeds they were paying for, with the majority having signed up for 100 Mbps plans.

Almost 26,500 of about 42,200 compensated Telstra customers were on this highest-speed plan. Of 8330 clients Optus will compensate, 5430 had 100 Mbps plans. TPG also landed itself in hot water – almost all of the 8000 customers it was required to compensate were on this speed.

An ACCC spokesman said it was an “industry-wide issue” that service providers were required to take responsibility for.

“Investigations into other retail service providers selling NBN broadband plans are continuing, and the ACCC will take enforcement action if we consider that they are not delivering on their promises to customers,” he said.

Telstra, Optus and TPG still provide a 100 Mbps option, but are required to speed-test lines within four weeks of activation and give customers options if they are not achieving the speeds they have paid for – this includes downgrading them to a lower speed plan.

Telstra’s budget brand Belong, which was also mentioned in the enforceable undertaking it entered into with the ACCC in November, does not advertise 100 Mbps speeds to FTTN and FTTB customers.

It’s understood new plans being introduced in mid-2018 should offer discounts on both products, with discussions currently underway with telcos.

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‘Five elephants in the room’: Virgin Australia dances ownership tango

After years of speculation and minority shareholder angst, Virgin Australia last year confirmed what many had long taken for granted: privatisation was on the cards.
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With less than 9 per cent of its shares traded freely on the stockmarket, the carrier is firmly in the control of its five largest investors, and in November chair Elizabeth Bryan said the board was acting in the best interests of all shareholders by exploring privatisation.

Virgin has not updated the market since, declining to comment when contacted this week.

Etihad Airways owns 21 per cent of Virgin, along with Singapore Airlines (20 per cent), Chinese conglomerates Nanshan (19.9 per cent) and HNA Group (19.8 per cent), and Richard Branson’s Virgin Group (10 per cent).

Going private would free Virgin from the burden of quarterly reporting, and the accompanying scrutiny, as it tries to fly out of a bumpy transformation period.

But some say its public company structure has kept the competing interests of Virgin’s rival airline owners in check.

Albert Wong, the Sydney stockbroker and corporate adviser who negotiated Nanshan’s purchase of its shares from Air New Zealand in mid-2016 for $260 million, said a major ownership shake-up was a key premise behind that investment.

“The share register was basically five elephants in the room,” Mr Wong told Fairfax Media.

“It was a structure that’s just not sustainable long term, so either it would be privatised or possibly taken over at some stage by one of the major players.”

While stressing he could not talk on behalf of Nanshan, he said the Chinese group was a “passive investor” in Virgin that would give due consideration to any privatisation offer.

“Clearly the value of Virgin is not reflected in the share price, even though it’s had a bit of a jump in the last four or five months,” Mr Wong said.

After trading at 49?? in early 2016, Virgin’s shares had tumbled to a seven-year low of 16?? by mid-2017.

Talk of privatisation, and the potential for smaller investors to receive a premium for their shares, have seen them shoot up to 27?? since November.

There are several pathways to a private Virgin, including the company mopping up the $200 million or so worth of shares in free float itself in a management buyout.

Chief executive John Borghetti would sell his shares, worth about $2.7 million at current prices, in that scenario.

Takeover rules stop any of the investors immediately snapping up the free float themselves, but they could gradually increase their holding by 3 per cent every six months under “creep” provisions.

Going private and no longer being contained by takeover provisions would open the door far more to significant deal making between the remaining owners. That could see one airline taking a controlling interest, subject to Foreign Investment Review Board approval.

But some of the key players are facing headaches of their own, which will probably influence if and how Virgin departs the ASX, and what it might look like as a private company.

Diogenis Papiomytis, the director of aviation at global consultancy Frost & Sullivan, said one of new Etihad chief executive Tony Douglas’ first orders of business upon starting this month would be to reassess its investment in Virgin.

The Gulf carrier has stepped backed from the international investment strategy spearheaded by former boss James Hogan, which blew a hole in its earnings and contributed to its $US1.87 billion ($2.39 billion) loss last year.

Italian carrier Alitalia went into administration and Air Berlin filed for bankruptcy in 2017 after Etihad withdrew its support for the pair.

Virgin ran at a $224.7 million net loss in 2016 and a$185.8 million loss in 2017. But it is cash-flow positive for the first time in five years and says its turnaround plan is running ahead of expectations.

Mr Papiomytis, who was part of the strategy team at Etihad that decided to invest in Virgin, said it was possible Etihad would sell its stake in Virgin in the medium term.

“Etihad has lost money from the investment … and there’s still a long way to go before they [Virgin] become sustainably profitable,” he said.

“As an investment it does not make sense, but strategically it does because Australia’s still one of the most important markets for Etihad Airways”.

Mr Papiomytis said Etihad would be weighing up whether divestment would jeopardise its lucrative code-share partnership, cede too much power to the other airlines who could draw Virgin passengers away from Abu Dhabi and towards their own hubs, or strengthen Emirates and Qantas’ partnership.

“I don’t see a very short-term divestment by Etihad in Virgin, but over the longer term I think that partnership can continue without the shareholding,” he said, adding that Etihad would “100 per cent” want Virgin to privatise.

Virgin has maintained its code-share alliance with Air New Zealand even after the Kiwi carrier sold out of its 25.9 per cent holding.

Corrine Png, CEO of Asian transport equity research firm Crucial Perspective, said that with Etihad looking more like a seller, Singapore Airlines and HNA would be the dominant players vying for control of Virgin.

The Nanshan Group owns only the fledging Qingdao Airlines, which has a fleet of 14 aircraft, while Richard Branson’s group has been stepping away from its aviation investments.

Ms Png said both Singapore and the highly acquisitive HNA would probably increase their holdings if possible.

“Now it is a deadlock of shareholdings, so in the end Virgin Australia doesn’t get anywhere because the board has so many conflicting interests,” she said.

Flights to Australia and New Zealand made up 18 per cent of Singapore Airlines’ revenue last year, according to its annual report. That made Australia more valuable to Singapore than to other Virgin investors, Ms Png said.

Singapore had enough net cash to buy the 80 per cent of Virgin it did not already own outright if needed, Ms Png said, but it only would be interested in increasing its stake to at least 50 per cent so it could command control.

At the same time, Singapore could bale out altogether if another airline increased its stake significantly, because it would lose the influence its investment was supposed to deliver.

“If there’s an overriding airline that has a much bigger stake, then there’s no point in the rest of them owning a stake,” Ms Png said.

HNA Group, meanwhile, is China’s fourth-biggest carrier but lags behind its Chinese competitors internationally, making a foothold into the booming inbound market to Australia attractive.

But it is also facing well-publicised issues. The group has come under scrutiny in several jurisdictions over its opaque ownership, and is now facing higher borrowing costs following a debt-fuelled $40 billion global spending spree.

The conglomerate is reportedly selling commercial properties to pay down debt, but its interest in aviation does not appear to have waned.

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New graduates struggling to find full-time work despite economic recovery

Recent university graduates are struggling to find full-time work despite the growth in overall employment, with one in five employed university leavers unhappily working part-time in 2017.
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Although there have been small improvements since 2014, employment outcomes for new graduates are still significantly worse than than before the global financial crisis – despite a general employment boom.

But in the medium-term – three years after leaving university – almost 90 per cent of graduates were in full-time work, with two-thirds saying their degree was important or very important to their current job.

And in an encouraging sign, the gender pay gap for undergraduates narrowed to a record low of 1.9 per cent, according to the 2017 Graduate Outcomes Survey released overnight by the federal government.

Four months after leaving university, 71.8 per cent of undergraduates are in full-time employment. Photo: Rob Homer

The survey showed 71.8 per cent of undergraduates were in full-time work four months after leaving university – up 0.9 percentage points since 2016, but still well below the peak of 85.2 per cent in 2008.

The Grattan Institute’s higher education analyst Andrew Norton said the flood of graduates created by Labor’s demand-driven system, which increased university participation, had made the headline figures “worse”.

But they also remained lower because historical skills shortages had been resolved, more people were pursuing further study and graduates were content to wait for better jobs, which they eventually found.

“Undoubtedly there is a much slower transition going on,” Mr Norton said. “Four months out [from university] people are still holding out for a decent full-time job. It is not worth taking just any job at that point when you’ve still got your student part-time job to keep you going.”

The subject areas with the lowest proportion of full-time employment after four months were the creative arts (55.4 per cent), science and mathematics (59 per cent), psychology (60.7 per cent) and communications (61.7 per cent).

In a finding the report’s authors labelled “interesting”, graduates in regional and remote areas were more likely to be in full-time work four months after leaving university (75.5 per cent) than those in metropolitan areas (70.6 per cent).

The survey also noted a shift to part-time employment, primarily due to the “relatively weak” state of the labour market since the GFC. Since 2008, the proportion of employed graduates working part-time increased to 37.9 per cent from 22.8 per cent.

Many of those people were not seeking more hours due to continuing studies. But a stubbornly high 19.7 per cent of all employed graduates were unhappily underemployed, with the highest concentration in the creative arts, communications, tourism and hospitality, the humanities, science and maths.

The gender pay gap for undergraduates dropped from 6.4 per cent to 1.9 per cent – the lowest in 40 years of records. But for people who finished postgraduate degrees by coursework, the gender pay gap actually widened to $15,000, or 19.7 per cent.

The survey, published by the federal Department of Education, was based on 121,000 responses from graduates of Australian universities and other tertiary institutions. In addition to employment outcomes, it also measures students’ satisfaction with their courses.

In 2017, the subjects with the course areas with the lowest level of satisfaction were computing, IT and engineering, though satisfaction for all study areas still exceeded 70 per cent. Only in engineering did fewer than 50 per cent of university leavers rate their teachers positively.

Education Minister Simon Birmingham said future students should use the data to make a better informed choice about their studies.

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How to make sense of Canva’s $1 billion valuation

Unicorns are mythical creatures. Both in the ancient literature sense – and in the billion-dollar start-up sense.
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Canva, a white-hot, Surry Hills-based design software start-up became the world’s latest “unicorn” this week – a private company valued at more $US1 billion.

It marks a significant milestone for the fast-growing company, and is another sign of the momentum in Australia’s maturing tech industry.

Still, there are reasons not to get too carried away by the news.

For one thing, “unicorns” used to be rare, hence the moniker. That is no longer really the case.

According to CB Insights, a start-up research firm, there are now 224 of them around the world (some of the better-known ones include Uber, Airbnb and Spotify).

Canva is the only Australian firm currently on the list – and the first to make it on there since Atlassian. It could have been valued even higher.

“We could have raised at a higher valuation from other investors, but that’s not something we wanted to do,” co-founder Cliff Obrecht told me this week.

Yet is also important to note that start-up valuations should really be taken with a grain of salt.

Don’t just take my word for that.

“All these private valuations are fake … It’s all on paper, it’s all a myth”, Bill Gurley, a widely respected US venture capitalist, and an early backer of Facebook and Uber, famously said in 2015.

Start-up valuations have also been described by Bloomberg as “fuzzy”, “insane” and “kind of made up”.

It is difficult to succinctly explain why, but here is an attempt.

Venture capital firms that back start-ups typically demand provisions to limit their downside risk.

After all, investing in start-ups is risky. Most of them (anywhere from 60 to 90 per cent, depending upon who you listen to) end up failing.

Common protections VCs get when investing in start-ups include “liquidation preferences” that, in the event of a sale or float or wind-up, ensure they get paid back before anyone else; and “ratchets” that entitle them to more shares if a certain return threshold isn’t achieved.

So, while the sale of a small percentage of a company at a certain price may imply a big valuation, the reality is much more complicated.

In any case, “unicorn” status is coveted by start-ups for a few reasons.

It’s a powerful tool for recruitment – the battle for talent in the tech industry is fierce. It’s also a good, easy news story to tell.

Canva’s raising was picked up by various outlets, here and abroad, some of which don’t normally cover the field. Hey, it’s three days after the fact, and I’m still writing about it here.

The upshot is that many people (potential users) who hadn’t heard of the service before, will have now. Well played.

Achieving a high valuation from investors, though, is not without risks.

It exposes a private company to the possibility of a dreaded “down round” in future.

“That’s definitely a risk,” Blackbird Ventures partner Rick Baker, one of Canva’s earliest backers, told me this week. “But it’s one we were obviously willing to take.”

Seven “unicorns” suffered this fate last year – you could say they had their horns ripped off. They were sold, or had to raise money, at valuations below the $US1 billion mark.

At least one, Jawbone, a maker of wireless speakers and fitness trackers, went out of business.

For Canva, the prospect of this would seem remote.

Sure, the company is yet to turn an annual profit. In the most recent financial year, it lost $3 million, and it generated just $24 million in revenue.

But a start-up losing money in the early years of its existence is not unusual.

And Canva claims it turned cashflow positive last year, and has been so for four straight months.

Its revenue is said to be growing at triple-digit rates, and it’s mostly recurring, something investors salivate over.

Its cost of acquiring customers is said to be extremely low (it doesn’t spend much on marketing, and has grown through word of mouth), as are its churn rates (the percentage of subscribers quitting).

I could dive further into the weeds of the metrics used to value software companies here, but the reality is this: some very smart people are deeply psyched about the company’s potential.

They could be wrong. If the company continues on its current trajectory, they will be right.

Regardless, Canva is certainly not the most ridiculous-looking investment out there.

Cryptocurrencies, or even closer to home, smaller tech stocks on the ASX, look much, much more questionable. And retail investors are punting on them.

Which brings us to arguably the most important point.

Start-ups like Canva are almost completely backed by sophisticated, professional institutional investors (themselves backed by gigantic entities such as super funds, which allocate only a small portion of their money to the sector).

If they make a failed bet (and they do), these investors have the financial strength to withstand any losses. And if they’re right, they will also reap the rewards.

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The momentum builds long before the biggest month of retail sale in years

There were folding camp chairs, milk crates and sleeping bags set up under cloudy skies outside Sydney’s flagship Apple store days before the launch of the iPhone X.
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The die-hard tech fans camping out on George Street for the latest iPhone are usually a source of amusement for pedestrians passing by on their way to work.

But it’s serious business: the ceaseless demand for iPhones and other electronic gadgets buoyed the Australian retail market in November, the biggest monthly jump in four years.

Vijay from Sydney’s city Telstra shop said it all: “iPhones never disappoint.”

It was no surprise to him or other electronics retailers that sales of the iPhone X was one reason for the nudge in November, a month when the Google Home gadget and the Xbox One X were also launched.

Vijay, who asked his surname not be published, said the store starts seeing demand for new gadgets three months before they even go on sale.

The Black Friday sale on November 24 also boosted retail figures, with internet search analytics company Hitwise recording more than 40 million visits to retail and classified websites on that day.

There were 39.2 million visits on Cyber Monday, and online auction site eBay, classified site Gumtree and Amazon were the three most popular sites for shoppers across that sales period.

The most sought after products on eBay on Black Friday included Xbox One, Playstation 4, laptops, iPads, Nintendo Switch, headphones, and drones.

The Australian Retailers’ Association executive director Russell Zimmerman said other spending in other categories increased year-on-year in November, including a 6.7 per cent boost for cafes and restaurants, and 2.1 per cent in clothing and accessories.

Clothing retailers such as ASOS and The Iconic tapped into their huge social media followings and email subscriber lists for the Black Friday sales, offering discounts as big as 30 per cent off almost every product.

Other popular online shopping destinations during Black Friday included Bonds, who offered a ‘Buy two get one free’ deal, while Cotton On had huge markdowns.

Some smaller retailers, like Melbourne’s shoe company Radical Yes, issued their dedicated subscribers with codes to unlock online discounts.

Booktopia offered as much as 90 per cent off thousands of books for the Black Friday sales, as well as 25 per cent off bestsellers. The ARA had predicted physical and eBooks to be a driver of the $7 million “other retailing” category before Christmas.

The growth of delivery services, such as Deliveroo and Uber Eats, were behind a 4.4 per cent year-on-year increase in the restaurant and take-away sector in November, Mr Zimmerman said.

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