Sunscreen scaremongers given the slip, slop, slap

Those aware of the risks of nanoparticles in sunscreen are less likely to use it. Photo: Craig Sillitoe “There is more risk from not using sunscreen and getting burnt than there is from using sunscreen and the potential penetration of nanoparticles”: Dr Maxine McCall, Principal Research Scientist. Photo: Quentin Jones
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Health experts fear lives will be lost because of what some view as scaremongering about risks from tiny particles used in some sunscreens.

Concern about the potential damage caused by Friends of the Earth’s anti-nanotechnology campaign is so great that public health advocates are abandoning their previous cautions on using sunscreens with nanoparticles.

”In the past I have said that consumers are better to avoid sunscreen with nanoparticles in it,” said Michael Moore, chief executive of the Public Health Association of Australia. ”But we are rethinking our position as evidence grows of people being reluctant to use sunscreen.”

One third of respondents to a federal government survey made public in February said they were aware of possible risks of using sunscreens with nanoparticles. In the group that was aware, 87 per cent said it made them concerned about using sunscreen.

Nanoparticles are so small they are measured in millionths of a millimetre. The concern is that they generate free radicals which could penetrate cells and interact with cell protein or DNA in unknown ways. However, research has yet to establish proof that nanoparticles in sunscreen are harmful to health.

In contrast, it is proved beyond doubt that using sunscreen protects against skin cancer, which causes 200 deaths a year in Australia and for which thousands of Australians are treated every year, said Terry Slevin, chairman of Cancer Council Australia’s skin cancer committee. Scaring people based on “extremely unconvincing evidence” of a “theoretical” problem means “public health harm is likely to occur”, Mr Slevin said.

“There is more risk from not us using sunscreen and getting burnt than there is from using sunscreen and the potential penetration of nanoparticles,” said Maxine McCall, CSIRO nanosafety research co-ordinator and senior principal research scientist.

Sunscreens with the  “blockers” zinc oxide and titanium oxide scatter or absorb UV radiation across a broader range of the UV spectrum than competing sunscreens relying on chemicals alone.

Sunscreens with metal oxide particles in their traditional or ‘‘bulk’’ form appear milky or white on the skin, such as zinc cream, the ‘‘Aussie war paint’’.  When the metal oxides are in nanoparticle form the lotion is more transparent and so more appealing to many consumers.

Friends of the Earth  wants mandatory safety testing and labelling of sunscreen products using nanoparticles, similar to European regulations to apply from July.

“We sell a product that is safe and it’s nano,” said  Rade Dudurovic, chairman of the listed company Antaria, a Perth manufacturer of zinc-based nanoparticles used in sunscreen.

“Unless [Friends of the Earth] can provide some form of academic, reputable medical evidence to suggest it is unsafe, it’s a spurious debate.”

The Therapeutic Goods Administration said there was “currently no evidence” to suggest a particular safety risk from sunscreens with nanoparticles or to support tougher labelling requirements.  New Zealand will require mandatory labelling from 2015.

Friends of the Earth’s  nanotechnology project co-ordinator Louise Sales said the fault for public concern about sunscreen safety lies not with the campaign group but with the Therapeutic Goods Administration  for failing to act to give consumers  peace of mind.

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Prices set to boost mining tax

The Gillard government’s mining tax should bring improved revenue flows when the big mining companies send in their March-quarter receipts over the next 10 days.
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While almost certain to fall short of the $2 billion in receipts forecast by Treasury for this financial year, the three commodities captured under the tax have been fetching higher prices in the past three months than during the December and September quarters.

The tax operates under a complicated system that is difficult to predict, but higher prices for iron ore, coking coal and thermal coal are the best indicators the tax will bring in more than the $126 million raised in its first six months.

The average iron ore price in the past three months was slightly more than $US148 a tonne – a 23 per cent improvement on the $US120 a tonne averaged in the December quarter.

The amount of iron ore sold in the March quarter was hampered by cyclone interruptions in the Pilbara, but these lost sales will be partially offset by the expansion programs in which companies such as BHP Billiton constantly increase their volumes of iron ore exports.

Coking coal prices improved more modestly, with the average price for the March period being 7 per cent better than during the December quarter.

Data compiled by the McCloskey Group suggests the benchmark thermal coal product exported from Newcastle fetched an average price of $US91.62 in the March quarter – 9 per cent better than the December quarter.

Treasury and Australian Tax Office officials will appear before a Senate inquiry into the tax on Wednesday, where the gap between forecast revenues and receipts will be investigated.

Some experts have been warning since August 2012 that mining companies would use their deferred tax credits to reduce the amount they pay, yet no action was taken to close the loophole.

In March, Rio Tinto estimated its deferred tax credit stood at $1.2 billion, while it also reported a further $12.6 billion worth of possible tax credits that were not yet formalised.

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Alliance surge fuels Qantas

Qantas boss Alan Joyce says its alliance with Emirates will help counter stiff competition from rivals such as Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific but he will not bring forward long-term targets for its international operations.
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Launching the alliance on Sunday, Mr Joyce said the airline had experienced a sixfold increase in bookings to Europe on the joint network in the first nine weeks of sales compared with the same period last year.

The tie-up is mostly focused on routes to Europe but includes services to North Africa, the Middle East, Asia and New Zealand. The airlines still need approval for trans-Tasman flying from the New Zealand government.

Mr Joyce said its fares on routes to Europe would drop on average by about $100 as a result of the alliance. Flying to Europe via Dubai rather than Singapore would reduce transit fees, landing fees and extra flight charges.

”We will be going through all the fares and aligning them and deciding what is the appropriate fare … in the various markets,” he said.

The two airlines’ fares will be aligned over the next few weeks, removing the discrepancy evident over the past few weeks.

A Qantas A380 and another superjumbo from Emirates flew in formation above the Opera House in Sydney on Sunday to mark the beginning of the alliance. The pilots reportedly practised by flying the route dozens of times in sophisticated flight simulators.

Despite the bullish response from travellers, Mr Joyce said Qantas would not look at expanding its premium international operations until they met their long-term targets, including breaking even by the 2015 financial year.

But he emphasised that the alliance would bolster Qantas’ ability to maintain two daily services between Australia and London via Dubai.

”The Dubai-London is actually one of the top-selling sectors with the Emirates code on it,” he said. ”Emirates said we could deal with more capacity on Dubai-London.”

Some industry insiders have questioned Qantas’ ability to fill seats between Dubai and London. Many passengers flying from Australia will get off in Dubai to catch connecting flights to destinations in continental Europe.

The competition regulator has also imposed conditions on Qantas and Emirates on the trans-Tasman route, which includes maintaining capacity on four overlapping routes.

Mr Joyce said the limitations on the trans-Tasman route would not allow Qantas to shift flights from the four overlapping routes to start up new services.

Qantas has suggested the alliance could allow it to start new services between Adelaide and Auckland.

”We are still looking at opportunities on the Tasman,” he said.

Singapore Airlines and Cathay Pacific – the main rivals to Qantas and Emirates – have already been reacting to the alliance with more competitive fares on flights to Europe.

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The globe spins and shows the most astute what time can teach

At the beginning of the year I made a range of forecasts of how key financial markets would perform in 2013. We are now exactly a quarter of the way through the year and it is timely to revisit those predictions to see how accurate or, in some cases, inaccurate they are proving to be.
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When it comes to investing it is critical to be accountable for your decision-making and accept the market is never wrong.

Australian sharemarket

I forecast the benchmark All Ordinaries Index to rise about 20 per cent to 5550. The assumption was falling interest rates would strong-arm investors into the stockmarket to gain an acceptable return, an outcome term deposits would no longer be able to deliver.

The All Ordinaries galloped 9.4 per cent higher in January and February as retail investors switched out of cash and northern hemisphere funds zeroed in on Australia’s high dividend-paying stocks.

In March, however, the market entered a corrective phase; it has fallen by about 3.6 per cent since March 11. Resources have taken the brunt of the selling, with renewed concerns about China’s economic circumstances.

The current pull-back should end in the next few weeks. April has been the best performing month on the Australian market over the past 20 years, with an 85 per cent positive strike rate and an average return of more than 3 per cent.

As Richard Coppleson from Goldman Sachs recently told investors in his daily report, investors are at present receiving $14 billion of dividends, most of which will find its way back into the market.

History tells us the market can rise at least another 10 per cent simply through valuation expansion before earnings growth takes over.

On this basis, I believe the All Ordinaries can surpass my original target and will hit 5600 points some time during 2013.US sharemarket

I originally predicted the US market would struggle to advance far during the course of 2013 because an economic recovery would drive interest rates higher.

In the first quarter, though, the US market has motored almost 10 per higher to record levels. The combination of accelerating economic growth and the Federal Reserve’s steadfast approach to quantitative easing is proving the elixir to extend a four-year rally.

History tells us the US is about to enter the seasonally poor period of the year, captured by the phrase ”sell in May and go away”. Given the vigorous first-quarter performance, it would be foolish to ignore this seasonal pattern.

Transcending this, though, is a rejuvenated consumer and a more bullish corporate America. Combine these elements with the Fed’s heavy foot on interest rates and the S&P 500 Index can rise another 10 per cent to 1700 points. But when Fed chairman Ben Bernanke eventually reverses his policy, investors should be wary.

Interest rates

Official interest rates set by the Reserve Bank of Australia have remained steady in the first quarter, while the 10-year bond rate has firmed from 3 per cent to more than 3.4 per cent. I predicted the RBA would cut by between 25 and 50 basis points during 2013, but a thumping February jobs report has the market betting rates are on hold.

I still believe the RBA will lower rates by another 25 basis points. While the lead indicators of housing finance and consumer spending are showing signs of life, the recovery is tepid. In conversations with companies over the past month, the overwhelming message is that many sectors have stalled and confidence is declining. This should see a disappointing earnings season for the period to June 30.

The RBA needs to ensure industrial companies turn up the growth dial to make up for a drop in spending by the miners over the next two years. Miners have contributed almost 60 per cent of the nation’s economic growth over the past few years.

I now forecast that official interest rates will bottom at 2.75 per cent during 2013.The dollar

The Australian dollar remained resilient in the first quarter in spite of a step-down in commodity prices. The strength has been displayed most acutely against the yen, the British pound and the euro, while it is still level pegging against the resurgent greenback.

At the beginning of the year I predicted the dollar would retain its strength, based on most of the other major currencies suffering from an oversupply due to money printing.

This prediction remains current and the dollar will continue to float in a range between US96¢ and US105¢. Falling below the bottom of this range would require the RBA to further reduce domestic interest rates and the US economy to flourish. This scenario is unlikely to present itself until later in 2013.

Commodities

I had forecast that, after 18 months of declines, industrial metals and bulk commodities would stabilise during 2013 as world growth upgraded.

In January this set-up looked to be unfolding nicely, but in more recent times the story has become dubious as increases in the supply of bulk commodities and industrial metals has been met by an underwhelming Chinese economy.

China’s economic growth has taken a permanent step down and the next six months should be instructive in telling us the new long-term run rate. Until then it is difficult to see a sustained recovery for resources.

Gold

Anybody who is anyone in the investment world seemed to be overweight gold heading into 2013. This has proved to be a poor decision. The precious metal has traded between $US1570 and $US1800 an ounce for more than a year and is currently precariously poised at the floor of this range. Gold’s latest bedfellow is US-dollar weakness and, despite the Fed printing $US85 billion a month, the greenback is rising against nearly every currency except Australia’s.

Until any weakness in the US dollar resumes, gold is going to struggle to break out of it funk.

Oil

Unlike other commodities, oil has steadily climbed in 2013, encouraged by a fresh splurge of money printing and a healthier US economy. At the start of the year I believed Nymex West Texas crude could struggle back above $US100 a barrel, and at $US97 that looks to become a reality soon.

In the longer run the emergence of abundant gas around the globe and the eventual removal of quantitative easing could undermine oil quite a bit. This, though, may be a story beyond 2013.

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Billabong sizes up takeover offers as decision looms

Billabong shares last traded at 73 cents. Photo: Glenn HuntBillabong directors were forced to cut short their Easter holiday break, meeting at the weekend to discuss two private equity bids pitched at the surfwear and sports apparel business that could bring a formal takeover proposal as early as Monday.
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Billabong held a board meeting at the weekend where it is believed the strength and weaknesses of proposals from both its takeover suitors were discussed.

Despite markets being closed on Monday, there could be an announcement from Billabong to inform the market about the private equity offers and a decision by directors to either support one or reject both.

Billabong confirmed 10 days ago that the private equity suitors were still interested despite a sharp fall in its share price, before a trading halt was called after fears the potential buyers had walked away, leaving Billabong without a credible buyer.

Shares hit a low of 63¢ when the trading halt was called, against an indicative price of $1.10 per share put on the table by the takeover suitors.

Billabong has interest from two buyers: a team led by Billabong executive Paul Naude and Sycamore Partners, and the other by US retailer VF Corp and private equity group Altamont.

Billabong last traded at 73¢ and fears of a private equity walkout were further stoked when Credit Suisse published a base-case discounted cash flow valuation for the company of as low as 49¢.

But Credit Suisse said it would retain a $1.10 target price to reflect the likelihood of a takeover proceeding.

There has also been speculation that the final offer price from either of the private equity groups could be as a low as 80¢ to reflect recent trading performance by Billabong and worsening conditions in some markets.

It comes at a crucial time for Billabong as it faces tough trading conditions across most of its global markets and a recent breach of its banking covenants after writing off most of the value of its flagship Billabong apparel brand.

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