Lower prices and write-offs hit Alumina

Alcoa’s Australian partner Alumina has slumped to a full year loss due to restructuring-related write-offs and lower prices and volumes.

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The miner and metals producer made a loss of $US30.2 million ($A39.3 million) in 2016, down from a $US88.3 million ($A114.8 million) profit in 2015.

The weaker result was attributed to its share of impairment charges related to shutting down capacity in its Alcoa World Alumina and Chemicals (AWAC) joint venture with metals giant Alcoa.

Alumina holds a 40 per cent stake in AWAC, and its share of those charges was $US115 million, partially offset by gains on the sale of the Dampier-Bunbury gas pipeline.

“Net cash distributions from AWAC were higher than the previous year despite the tough market conditions in the first half,” chief executive Peter Wasow said.

“As a result of restructuring and productivity gains AWAC continues to keep cost of production low and prices have recovered significantly.”

The AWAC joint venture also reported a fall in alumina margins because of lower prices in the first half of the year, and lower volumes after curtailing capacity across its refineries.

This was partly offset by increased sales of bauxite ore to third parties, a business that AWAC is looking to expand.

The two joint venture partners have shut more than three million tonnes of refinery capacity globally in the past two years amid a prolonged downturn in prices, but have spared their three alumina refineries in Western Australia.

Alcoa in November completed a split of its global operations into two independent, publicly traded companies, with one focused on upstream mining and smelting and the other on aluminium products, as part of efforts to tackle the price and demand slump.

The split was able to proceed after the two partners settled a dispute and agreed to reshape their joint venture, allowing greater say to the Australian company.

The company expects a steady improvement in alumina prices in 2017 as demand and supply growth remains largely in balance. However, cost pressures are expected to continue, Mr Wasow said.

He expects to increase bauxite sales to third parties during the year.

Alumina shares were down four cents, or two per cent, at $1.93 at 1340 AEDT.

RESTRUCTURING CONTRIBUTES TO ALUMINA’S LOSS

* Full year net loss of $US30.2m vs $US88.3m net profit

* Final dividend up 1.3 US cents to 3.1 US cents

Australia, Israel to expand business ties

Australia and Israel will co-operate more on technological innovation and make it easier for people to travel between both countries, under newly signed leaders’ agreements.

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Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull and Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu signed the agreements ahead of ministerial meetings in Sydney on Thursday.

Both leaders said they were keen for their countries to expand their business and trade ties.

Mr Turnbull said the agreement on technological innovation and research would provide a framework for Australian scientists and businesses to create industries of the future with the help of Israel’s well-established hi-tech community.

The air services agreement, which compliments a separate deal signed between Qantas and Israeli carrier El Al, would help foster business ties by making travel easier.

“There are a number of Australian businessmen and women who are investing in innovative technology-based industries between Israel and Australia,” Mr Turnbull said at the start of the ministerial meetings, which included Treasurer Scott Morrison, Defence Minister Marise Payne, Environment Minister Josh Frydenberg and Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce.

“We want to deepen that.

“The air services agreement is part of that. There’s no substitute for people getting together.

“We should be doing a lot more together. We shouldn’t allow the tyranny of distance in the 21st century (to prevent that).

“There’s so much scope for co-operation.”

Two-way trade between Israel and Australia is worth about $1.2 billion each year.

Mr Netanyahu said he would like to see that double or tripled, and he believed Australia could act as a gateway for Israeli businesses wanting to expand into Asia.

“If I can schlep here, they can too,” he told the ministerial roundtable meeting.

“I can testify it ain’t bad.”

Mr Netanyahu said it was vital countries like Israel and Australia co-operated to develop technology to “fight the barbarians” in the Middle East.

Countries like Israel and Australia needed to “repel danger and seize opportunities”, he said.

“We are working … with other like-minded states to prevent terrorist attacks.

“This half century will be dominated by progress and freedom, not renegade barbarism.”

In a joint statement the leaders said they were concerned about security challenges in the Middle East and emphasised the need for strengthening international co-operation to tackle terrorism.

In a joint statement, both Mr Turnbull and Mr Netanyahu expressed concern about recent ballistic missile tests by Iran and called on the country to implement its obligations under a UN Security Council resolution.

The leaders were also worried about Iran’s support for Islamist militant group Hezbollah.

The comments on Iran come after Australia recently restored relations between Canberra and Tehran and began to explore trade opportunities with each other.

Security and terrorism as well as ways Australia and Israel could work together on cyber security have featured heavily in talks between the two leaders during the past two days.

The prime ministers also committed to explore opportunities for future collaboration in the areas of agriculture, water, energy and environmental protection.

North Korea diplomat wanted over Kim killing: Malaysia

Investigators have put five North Koreans in the frame for last week’s brazen killing of Kim Jong-Nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and have said they are seeking three more for questioning.

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 They include the embassy’s second secretary, Hyon Kwang Song, as well as a North Korean airline employee called Kim Uk Il, Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters.

 “We have written to the ambassador to allow us to interview both of them. We hope that the Korean embassy will cooperate with us and allow us to interview them quickly. If not, we will compel them to come to us,” he said.

 Jong-Nam died on February 13 after being attacked as he waited for a plane to Macau.

 Leaked CCTV footage from the airport shows the chubby 45-year-old being approached by two women, one of whom grabs him from behind and appears to shove a cloth in his face.

 Moments later Jong Nam is seen seeking help from airport staff, who direct him to a clinic, where he apparently slumped in a chair.

 Malaysian police say he suffered a seizure and died before he reached hospital, seemingly from the effects of a toxin.

 Seoul has said from the start that Pyongyang was behind the murder, citing a “standing order” from Jong-Un to kill his elder sibling, and a failed assassination bid in 2012.

Trained killers

Asked whether the five North Korean suspects had masterminded the attack, Khalid said he believed they were “heavily involved” in the murder.

 Four of the men fled the country on the day of the killing and returned to Pyongyang, he said, while one remains in custody in Malaysia.

 The police chief dismissed claims the two women had believed the attack was a made-for-TV prank.

 “Of course they knew” it was a poison attack, Khalid said. “I think you have seen the video, right? The lady was moving away with her hands towards the bathroom. She was very aware that it was toxic and that she needed to wash her hands.”

 Khalid said Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong, 28, and Indonesian Siti Aishah, 25, had been trained to swab the man’s face, practising in Kuala Lumpur before the assault at the airport.

 Aishah wiped a toxic substance in his face first, followed by Huong, the national police chief said.

 The Indonesian’s Malaysian boyfriend, who was arrested in the first days of the probe, has been released, he added.

 But Pierre Champy, a chemist at the French National Centre for Scientific Research, cast doubt on the theory that the toxin acted by passing through the skin.

 “I don’t know of a toxin powerful enough to act by penetrating the skin that would kill so quickly. But it could have been a spray, entering via his lungs or mouth, or a small injection device,” he said.

 Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur have locked horns over the investigation, with North Korea’s envoy on Wednesday calling for Malaysia to release the two women and the North Korean citizen from police custody.

 “They should immediately release the innocent females from Vietnam and Indonesia as well as a DPRK citizen,” ambassador Kang Chol said in a statement which repeated allegations that South Korea had influenced the probe.

 The women must have been framed as they would have died if they had carried the poison in their hands, the ambassador claimed. He did not address news that police were seeking to question an embassy official.

 The diplomatic row erupted after North Korea objected to an autopsy of Jong-Nam’s body and insisted that his remains be returned to Pyongyang.

 Malaysia rejected the request, saying the remains must stay in the morgue until a family member identifies them and submits a DNA sample.

 No next-of-kin have come forward, police chief Khalid said, adding rumours that Jong-Nam’s son Kim Han-Sol was in Malaysia were not true.

 First born Jong-Nam was once thought to be the natural successor to his father, the then-North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il.

 But after Jong-Il’s death in 2011 the succession went instead to Kim Jong-Un, a child of a later marriage.

 Some analysts have said Jong-Nam was a marked man since he criticised the regime in 2011 to a Japanese journalist, while others said the killing could have been ordered over reports he was readying to defect.

Iluka slides to $224m loss

Mineral sands miner Iluka Resources has slid to a full-year loss of $224 million on the back of hefty writedowns related to a restructuring of the company’s business amid the downturn.

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The loss was within the $220 million to $230 million range the company had forecast in January, but sharply lower from the previous year’s $53.5 million profit.

“The results reflect the continuation of both subdued market conditions and lower revenues across the three main products, mainly associated with lower zircon prices, and also a number of measures implemented as part of the review of the business,” managing director Tom O’Leary said on Thursday.

The miner in January outlined a $201 million impairment charge related to a writedown of mine reserves, exploration assets and idled equipment.

It also cut 90 jobs and said it would reduce or close a number of exploration activities in an effort to cut costs.

Iluka has eased production in recent years as it grapples with a prolonged downturn in commodities prices. It is the world’s biggest producer of zircon, used in ceramic products, as well as a major supplier of paint ingredient rutile.

The company’s mineral sands revenue was down 11.4 per cent at $726.3 million due to lower zircon and ilmenite sales and lower prices.

Iluka recently completed a $375 million takeover of Sierra Leone miner Sierra Rutile Limited, and in December said it planned to spend up to a further $290 million to ramp up production, streamline operations and improve safety at the newly acquired company.

The company on Thursday said its board has decided not to pay a final dividend in light of the potential investment opportunities ahead. As a result, the full-year dividend remained at the 3.0 cents a share paid in August, down sharply from the 25 cents a share paid in 2015.

Iluka has flagged higher sales volumes for 2017, helped by the Sierra Rutile acquisition and improving market conditions.

At 1135 AEDT, Iluka shares were down 2.95 per cent at $6.90 each.

ILUKA SLIDES TO FULL YEAR LOSS

* Net loss $224m vs $53.5m net profit

* Revenue $726.3m, down 11.4 pct

* Full year dividend 3 cents a share vs 25 cents

Arrests made as remnants of Dakota pipeline protest camp go up in flames

Burning the structures was part of a leaving ceremony, according to protesters.

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Many of them planned to go peacefully, but authorities were prepared to arrest others who said they would defy the deadline in a final show of dissent.

Some 10 activists who had remained after the 2pm deadline passed were arrested, according to the North Dakota Joint Information Center. 

About 150 people marched arm-in-arm out of the camp, singing and playing drums as they walked down a highway. It was not clear where they were headed. One man carried an American flag hung upside-down.

Others departed the soggy camp earlier in the day. Authorities sent buses to take protesters to Bismarck, where they were offered fresh clothing, bus fare home and food and hotel vouchers.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers set a 2 p.m. Wednesday deadline for the camp to be cleared, citing the threat of spring flooding.

At the height of the protests, the site known as Oceti Sakowin hosted thousands of people, though its population dwindled to just a couple of hundred as the pipeline battle moved into the courts.

The camp is on federal land in North Dakota between the Standing Rock Sioux

Reservation and the pipeline route that is being finished by Dallas-based Energy Transfer Partners. When complete, the pipeline will carry oil through the Dakotas and Iowa to a shipping point in Illinois.

Some of the remaining protesters were focused on moving off federal land and away from the flood plain into other camps, said Phyllis Young, one of the camp leaders.

“The camps will continue,” she said. “Freedom is in our DNA, and we have no choice but to continue the struggle.”

New camps are popping up on private land, including one the Cheyenne River Sioux set up about a mile from the main camp.

“A lot of our people want to be here and pray for our future,” tribal Chairman Harold Frazier said.

People peacefully leave the Dakota Access pipeline main protest camp near Cannon Ball.AP

Others, including Dom Cross, an Oglala Sioux from Pine Ridge, South Dakota, said he planned to return home after living at the camp since September.

“There’s a lot of sadness right now. We have to leave our second home,” he said.

Law enforcement officers and first-responders were on hand from several states.

Charles Whalen, 50, an alcohol and drug counselor from Mille Lacs, Minnesota, said he and a group of about 20 people were not going to leave on their own and were willing to get arrested to prove their point.

“Passive resistance,” Whalen said. “We are not going to do anything negative. It’s about prayer.”

Levi Bachmeier, policy adviser for Gov. Doug Burgum, said authorities would rather not apprehend people, but they would enforce the deadline.

The state “remains committed to ensuring the safety of everyone here,” Bachmeier said. “The last thing we want is to see anyone harmed.”

Some campers said they were leaving with mixed feelings, both energized by the long protest effort and saddened to leave new friends. Some people set off fireworks.

Matthew Bishop, of Ketchikan, Alaska, has been in North Dakota since October. He planned to move to another camp.

“People have been surviving here for hundreds and hundreds of years … so if I back down, what would I look like?” Bishop said as he tied his possessions to the top of his car.

Craig Stevens, spokesman for the MAIN Coalition of agriculture, business and labour interests, said the group understands “the passions that individuals on all sides of the pipeline discussion feel” and hopes that protesters’ voices “will continue to be heard through other peaceful channels and in court.”

A massive effort to clean up the camp has been underway for weeks, first by protesters themselves and now with help from the Army Corps in removing debris.

Some vehicles and pedestrians were having trouble getting through the muck created by recent rain and snow, and cleanup efforts were suspended in part because camp officials did not want heavy equipment making the conditions worse.

Native Americans and others began protesting at the camp starting last April, in opposition to the 1,172-mile (1,886-kilometer) oil pipeline. Its route runs under land the Standing Rock Sioux consider sacred and under the Missouri River, which is the source of drinking water for the tribe’s reservation. 

The tribe filed a motion in federal court last week asking that pipeline construction be halted until a full environmental impact review is completed. 

Related reading

Malaysia seeking North Korean diplomat over Kim Jong-nam killing

Investigators have put five North Koreans in the frame for last week’s brazen killing of Kim Jong-nam at Kuala Lumpur International Airport and have said they are seeking three more for questioning.

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They include the embassy’s second secretary, Hyon Kwang Song, as well as a North Korean airline employee called Kim Uk Il, Khalid Abu Bakar told reporters.

“We have written to the ambassador to allow us to interview both of them. We hope that the Korean embassy will cooperate with us and allow us to interview them quickly. If not, we will compel them to come to us,” he said.

Jong-nam died last Monday after being attacked as he waited for a plane to Macau.

Leaked CCTV footage from the airport shows the chubby 45-year-old being approached by two women, one of whom grabs him from behind and appears to shove a cloth in his face.

Related reading

Moments later Jong-nam is seen seeking help from airport staff, who direct him to a clinic, where he apparently slumped in a chair.

Malaysian police say he suffered a seizure and died before he reached hospital, seemingly from the effects of some kind of toxin.

Seoul has said from the start that Pyongyang was behind the murder, citing a “standing order” from Jong-Un to kill his elder sibling, and a failed assassination bid in 2012.

Trained killers 

Asked whether the five North Korean suspects had masterminded the attack, Khalid said he believed they were “heavily involved” in the murder. 

Four of the men fled the country on the day of the killing and returned to Pyongyang, he said, while one remains in custody in Malaysia.

The police chief dismissed claims the two women had believed the attack was a made-for-TV prank. 

“Of course they knew” it was a poison attack, Khalid said. “I think you have seen the video, right? The lady was moving away with her hands towards the bathroom. She was very aware that it was toxic and that she needed to wash her hands.”

Khalid said Vietnamese suspect Doan Thi Huong, 28, and Indonesian Siti Aishah, 25, had been trained to swab the man’s face, practising in Kuala Lumpur before the attack at the airport.

Related reading

Aishah wiped a toxic substance in his face first, followed by Huong, the Malaysian police chief said. 

Khalid said investigators had been “very fair” and the North Korean embassy now had a duty to assist them.

Pyongyang and Kuala Lumpur have been at diplomatic daggers drawn over the attack, with North Korea’s envoy insisting Jong-nam’s body be returned and objecting to an autopsy.

Malaysia rejected the request, saying the remains must stay in the morgue until a family member identifies them and submits a DNA sample. 

No next-of-kin have come forward, Khalid said, adding rumours that Jong-nam’s son Kim Han-Sol was in Malaysia were not true.

Related reading

Crown in the dark over China detentions

Casinos operator Crown Resorts is still waiting to find out what its detained employees in China are accused of doing wrong.

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Recently-appointed executive chairman John Alexander says legal processes are under way, but Crown knows little more.

“Obviously, there are legal processes under way, and we are awaiting clarification on that,” he told reporters on Thursday.

“Nothing has changed from what we know and what we’ve told the markets, which is a basically a number of our employees have been arrested and charged with gambling offences.

“We have no greater clarity than that. We have to wait for those legal processes to take their course.”

Crown says 15 of its employees – not 18 as previous has been reported – were detained by Chinese authorities in October and one of them has since been bailed, leaving 14 still in detention.

Mr Alexander said Crown had ceased marketing activities in China for now, but the company regarded that as a pause rather than a retreat.

He said mainland China represented less than half of Crown’s VIP customer base, with other high-rolling gamblers sprinkled between Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, and parts of north Asia.

Chief financial officer Ken Barton said Crown’s sales force in China could be redeployed to other Asian markets, such as Singapore.

Mr Barton said Crown also had a very good casino in London, which gave business the opportunity to attract VIP gamblers from the Middle East and Europe.

“We’re still very happy that we’ve got some of the best facilities in the world, and we believe that customers will still recognise the quality of those assets and come back to visit us,” Mr Barton said.

What we know about the Trappist-1 system

THE DWARF STAR AND ITS SEVEN PLANETS – WHAT WE KNOW

THE STAR

* Trappist-1 is an ultra-cool dwarf star that is 39 light years away in the constellation Aquarius (about 44 million years away at the average cruising speed of a passenger jet).

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* It was discovered using TRAPPIST (Transiting Planets and Planetesimals Small Telescope) in Chile.

* Trappist-1 is barely the size of Jupiter and about 500 million years old but has an estimated lifespan of 10 trillion years, compared with the sun, which is about halfway through its 10 billion-year life.

* Researchers believe it is about 200 times dimmer than the sun and glows red or salmon-coloured.

THE PLANETS

* Seven Earth-size planets have been discovered orbiting Trappist-1, named Trappist-1b to h.

* They were detected using NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope as well as TRAPPIST and other ground-based telescopes.

* All seven are closer to their host star than Mercury is to the sun. The furthest is only about 8.98 million kilometres from Trappist-1.

* The planets’ orbits are very close. If people were standing on one planet’s surface, they “could potentially see geological features or clouds of neighbouring worlds, which would sometimes appear larger than the moon in Earth’s sky”, NASA says.

* The planets are similar in size to Earth and Venus or slightly smaller.

* The most massive planet, Trappist-1c, is 1.38 times the mass of Earth, while the least massive, d, is only 0.41 (the mass of h is unknown).

* A year on the innermost planet lasts only about 1.5 days, while the furthest orbits about once every 20 days.

* Based on their densities, the planets are likely to be rocky.

* The six inner planets are in a zone where temperatures range from 0C to 100C, while scientists believe the seventh, 1h, could be an ice world.

* At least three of the inner planets are thought to be capable of hosting liquid water, and possibly life.

* The innermost three are likely too hot but 1e,f and g are in the star’s habitable zone.

Source: NASA/Reuters/AP

Palaszczuk slams penalty rates decision

The Palaszczuk government has called on Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull to intervene following the Fair Work Commission’s decision to slash Sunday penalty rates.

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Ms Palaszczuk says the “devastating decision” would see some Queenslanders lose up to $6000 a year.

“Clearly the Turnbull government needs to intervene and put an end to these cuts to the take-home pay of Queensland workers,” Ms Palaszczuk said in a statement.

Under changes announced by the Fair Work Commission on Thursday, Sunday penalty rates for casual hospitality workers will fall from 175 per cent to 150 per cent, while retail workers face a reduction from 200 per cent to 150 per cent.

Ms Palaszczuk wrote to Commissioner Iain Ross in September last year expressing her concerns that Queensland families and the state’s economy would be worse off under the changes.

“These workers rely on penalty rates to provide the basics for their families and themselves,” she wrote.

Industrial Relations Minister Grace Grace said the decision would hit the economy hard, especially in regional Queensland.

“Today’s decision will take money out of the real economy, reducing the spending power of thousands of Queensland families,” she said.

Queensland Council of Unions general secretary Ros McLennan called the decision “voodoo economics” and said it will rip $1.2 billion from the state economy without creating any jobs.

“It’s a disgraceful decision,” Ms McLennan told AAP.

“It is the single largest pay cut in Australia’s history since the Depression,” she added.

Earlier, a crowd of about 100 union members gathered outside Fair Work Commission’s offices in Brisbane’s CBD as the news broke, before marching to the federal offices at Waterfront Place.

How to live to 90 well: expert

Making daily life “more difficult” is what Australians need to do to ensure they live well in old age.

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Professor Andrea Maier from Royal Melbourne Hospital and University of Melbourne helps people to live longer and healthier life spans.

The professional fellow of aged care says living longer is relatively easy, but living healthy life spans requires effort.

With apps that allow you to do the weekly grocery shop online “it’s not very easy” to be physically active in this society, acknowledges Prof Maier.

“But you just have to make your life a little bit more difficult – include your physical exercise in the daily living,” Prof Maier told AAP.

Life expectancy has increased across the globe, and in South Korea it’s creeping towards 90.

According to new life expectancy projections, published in The Lancet, Australian boys born in 2030 can expect to live to 84, four years longer than those born in 2010.

Girls born in 2030 can expect to live until they are 87.5.

Despite living longer lives we are “growing old as patients” because of health behaviour, Prof Maier told AAP.

“It’s the diet, it is the physical inactivity, it’s the smoking,” she said.

Research shows people are being diagnosed with diseases younger.

A decade ago the average age the first incidence of disease was typically reported, says Prof Maier, was about 50. Now it’s around the age of 45.

“We just diminish the potency of our health care system to live longer in a unhealthier way,” said Prof Maier.

The good news is behavioural changes that have an impact can be made even at the age of 50 and 60.

It starts with being more active, both cognitively and physically.

The excuse that physical activity costs time and money is not good enough, Prof Maier says.

“We just should go back to our roots where we increase the physical exercise in the normal daily life, so make life a little more physically exciting” she said.

TIPS TO TAKE ADVANTAGE OF DAILY LIVING

* Brush your teeth on one leg – this increases your balance and strength and therefore reducing your risk of falls later in life.

* Use a small plate – this will help reduce over-eating and aid weight loss and therefore reduce disease risk caused by obesity.

* Walk down the street (to get the milk).