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ANZ’s Eslake highlights focus on China

Profile | 7th August 2009

Jordan Chong | Sydney Morning Herald | 7th August 2009

Outgoing ANZ Banking Group Ltd chief economist Saul Eslake says the enormous thirst for knowledge about China has been one of the biggest changes he has seen during his 14 years in the job.

Mr Eslake, who leaves the bank next week, said all anybody wanted to talk about when he started in 1995 was what was happening in Japan and the US.

But the rapid rise in interest in Asia, particularly China, represents both an opportunity for Australian businesses and a potentially tricky issue for lawmakers.

“The growing importance of China to our economic prosperity presents challenges to our overall political and economic strategy that our previous reliance on Japan never did,” Mr Eslake told AAP in an interview.

“We may, on occasion, be forced to think about potential divergences between what is in our economic interest and what is in our geopolitical interest in a way we’ve never had to before.”

Since he took the chief economist’s chair at ANZ, Australia has confronted the 1997 Asian financial crisis, the 2001 dot com bust and the September 11 2001 terrorist attacks.

And of course, there has the great global recession of 2008/09.

Another chief economist who has worked through the same events is the National Australia Bank’s Alan Oster, who has held his post since 1992 and knew Mr Eslake when the pair worked together at the Department of Treasury.

He said the role of chief economist always presented new challenges.

“People say why are you still doing the same job and the answer to that is that because the job changes all the time because the conditions change all the time,” Mr Oster said.

Bill Evans has been chief economist at Westpac Banking Corporation since 1991. He described his counterpart at ANZ as someone whose views “you needed to be aware of” because they were “generally pretty accurate”.

“He did probably have the loudest voice in warning that the government needed to be conservative with regard to use of the surplus funds during the boom period and of course that’s proved to be an important support for the Australian economy now,” Mr Evans said.

Mr Evans said economics had always featured prominently in the local media, given the high proportion of variable rate mortgages held in Australia, a volatile domestic currency and the focus on equity markets due to superannuation investment.

ANZ’s Mr Eslake agrees, adding that he believes the level of public interest in economic matters in Australia was high compared with other countries, and points to the role economic policy has played in election campaigns “at least since the 1970s”.

Which leads to the famous incident with former Treasurer Peter Costello in 2002.

According to Mr Eslake’s account, Mr Costello rang the bank’s then chief executive to threaten “regulatory action that ANZ would not like” after some comments he made at an Institute of Chartered Accountants conference in Tasmania.

Asked by a journalist at the conference if the Howard government had engaged in any creative accounting, Mr Eslake replied that yes it had and proceeded to give three examples before adding that they were no worse than any previous government.

“To the extent that he had a problem with it he might have either rung me directly or had one of his flunkies ring me, rather than – as he actually did – ring up the CEO, ring up my boss and threaten to use his regulatory powers in an attempt to silence me,” Mr Eslake said.

“I know that sort of thing goes on in dictatorships, I didn’t think it would go on in Australia.”

Mr Eslake will join the Grattan Institute think tank on August 11, where he will focus on productivity issues.

He will also continue to champion Tasmania’s bid to be part of the AFL competition, dismissing calls that his home state’s economy was too small to support a team.

But Mr Eslake was not hopeful of that happening while AFL chief executive Andrew Demetriou “has any say in it, unfortunately”.

“I increasingly come round to the belief – I can’t prove it – that it’s basically prejudice and contempt towards Tasmania that is preventing the AFL from becoming the truly national competition that it should be,” Mr Eslake said.

One Melbourne-based ANZ employee said staff will particularly miss Mr Eslake’s engaging presentations, which were almost always to full houses.

“You definitely had to get in early because everyone was keen to hear what he had to say,” the employee said.

“You wanted to be in the room.”


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