An increase in the cost of calling international numbers on Virgin Mobile plans, which will see the per-minute rate of calling some places soar by 1289 per cent, has angered many customers.
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On Monday, Virgin sent an email to customers telling them that it was “updating” its international calling rates and country groups for customers on its mobile Big Cap, Big Plans and Fair Go plans.

The email said the changes would come into effect on February 28, “so if you are calling overseas from your mobile after then, please take note of the new call rates and country groups”.

No justification for the price increase was given in the email. If customers had any questions, they were directed to discuss them with Virgin staff in Virgin Mobile’s online community forum.

One Virgin Mobile customer, Lydia Sper, said the changes were “disgusting”. She wrote on the public forum using capital letters to express her opinion about the price increase.

Ms Sper, of Melbourne, wrote that she used Virgin Mobile to call her fiance in Fiji. The telco used to charge $2 per minute for the calls, but from February 28 the charge would triple to $6 per minute.

“There is no justification in such a price hike!” Ms Sper wrote. “I will now search for another mobile phone provider who does not charge such ridiculous rates to Fiji.”

Another example, given by a reader who contacted Fairfax Media, showed a 1289 per cent price hike on mobile phone calls made to Tokelau from Australia. Virgin Mobile currently charges $1.80 per minute to call people on the ring-shaped reef north-east of New Zealand in the South Pacific Ocean, but will soon charge $25 per minute.

Virgin Mobile community manager, Jordan Kerr, has been consoling customers in the Virgin forum, responding to their questions about the price increase. He said changes to the top 20 countries people called had been “minimal” and that the price hike had to do with Virgin Mobile recently charging customers for international calls to some countries at a loss.

“In recent times, the cost to Virgin Mobile of international calls has risen and we have had to pass these costs on,” Mr Kerr wrote. “Essentially we have been charging for calls to some countries at a loss and a lot of the reasons for the price increase are out of our control and include market shifts, international exchange rates, foreign government regulations and so on.”

In his comments to users, Mr Kerr added that in “the interest of fairness” it was worth noting that Virgin was one of the only telcos in Australia that included international calling credit in plans.

But this was a poor explanation for one customer, who told Fairfax that the price hike meant that the included international call credit with one of its $89 plans wouldn’t last as long as it used to.

The plan includes $89 worth of international calling credit and previously would have allowed for just under 49 minutes of talk time to Tokelau from Australia. But under the new international calling rates, the plan’s included talk time to the reef could be used up in fewer than four minutes.

In a statement, Virgin Mobile said it estimated that the changes would cause “inconvenience” for less than one per cent of its customers “who call the countries in the categories most affected”.

The statement linked to tips for people to use when calling international numbers.

The tips suggests people use email, social networking or Skype to stay in contact with people overseas as “making calls while overseas or to other countries can be expensive”.

It also suggests using a local SIM and not checking voicemail while overseas.

 This reporter is on Facebook: /bengrubb

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Australia likes to think of itself as exceptional. We’re different. We’re lucky. The troubles of the world do not reach us.
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It’s true by and large. We have avoided most the world’s worst afflictions, including much of the global financial crisis and its impacts on house prices.

But we’re not quite as different as you might like to think. Other nations had very similar experiences before and after the GFC, with asset prices just as robust and the imbalances that come just as troubling.

Sweden is one nation that we might do well to take a closer look at.

Sweden’s housing market shares a lot of similarities with Australia after its financial system was deregulated in the mid-1980s, which led to a house price boom and then correction as the Swedish economy entered recession in the early-1990s.

However, whereas Australia’s banking system was almost brought to its knees via widespread corporate losses, Sweden experienced a banking crisis in the early 1990s after house prices crashed, as well as the bailout of Sweden’s banks by the government.

And like in Australia, since then Sweden also experienced a large house price boom that ran from 1996 to 2010, whereby prices rose by about 165 per cent in real (inflation-adjusted) terms, before falling by about 6 per cent since their peak:

Swedish authorities also implemented a range of measures to stimulate the housing market and maintain the flow of mortgage credit during the onset of the GFC.

While the Australian government increased grants to first home buyers, in Sweden tax breaks were implemented in 2008 for homeowners wishing to renovate newly purchased properties.

Like in Australia, the government also stepped up the provision of liquidity to the banking sector, guaranteeing the funding of the banks and mortgage institutions, as well as establishing a long-term stability fund to deal with any future solvency problems.

Like Australia’s, the Swedish tax system encourages house purchase over other investment options. In general, owner occupiers can deduct 30 per cent of mortgage interest from their marginal rate of tax. Although there is also a capital gains tax of 30 per cent on two-thirds of any price rises, this can be deferred as long as another owner-occupied property is bought, and the rule applies to heirs as well.

Access to mortgage credit has been particularly loose in Sweden. In the years leading up to the GFC, loans were typically granted up to 95 per cent of property value, although 100 per cent-plus loans were also available.

Moreover, loan amortisation periods are particularly long in Sweden – at 100 years for houses and 200 years for tenant-owner apartments. Like with Australian banks, this huge loan growth was funded by an increasingly large reliance on wholesale funding.

The Swedish planning system is also highly restrictive, resulting in home building rates near the bottom of European countries.

These similarities have, according to the IMF, put both Sweden and Australia close to the top of the list of the most indebted households in the world:

But there is one area where Sweden and Australia are less alike. Swedish authorities are tiring of the housing situation, and are looking to dampen demand by strengthening safeguards on excessive mortgage lending.

In October 2010, Sweden’s financial regulator, the Financial Supervisory Authority (FSA), capped mortgage loan-to-value ratios (LVRs) at 85 per cent, a move that helped slow annual mortgage growth from more than 10 per cent between 2004 and 2008, to 4.5 per cent in December 2012.

However, this rate of mortgage growth remains too high for the FSA’s liking, and it is now seeking to impose further LVR limits, as well as increase capital adequacy requirements on Swedish mortgage lenders.

From Bloomberg:

“Sweden’s financial regulator says it’s ready to tighten restrictions on mortgage lending to stop banks feeding household debt loads after a cap imposed during the crisis failed to stem credit growth …

“The FSA is ready to enforce a cap limiting home loans relative to property values to less than the 85 per cent allowed today, [FSA director general Martin Andersson] said. Banks may also be told to raise risk weights on mortgage assets higher than the regulator’s most recent proposal, he said. The watchdog has other measures up its sleeve should these two prove inadequate, he said.

“As most of the rest of Europe grapples with austerity and recession, the region’s richer nations, including Sweden, Norway and Switzerland, have been battling credit-fuelled housing booms …

“Switzerland this month ordered its banks to hold 1 per cent additional capital against risks posed by the country’s biggest property boom in two decades. Norway in December proposed tripling the risk weights banks must use on mortgage assets to 35 per cent …

“The regulator last year also proposed tripling the risk weights banks apply to mortgage assets to 15 per cent. While the pace of credit growth has eased, household debt still reached a record 173 per cent of disposable incomes last year, the central bank estimates.

“That far exceeds the 135 per cent peak reached at the height of Sweden’s banking crisis two decades ago. Back then, the state nationalised two of the country’s biggest banks after bad loans wiped out their equity.”

Australia is yet to even debate the merits of macroprudential tools beyond a few dismissive utterances from the Reserve Bank. Yet these tools are enabling Swedish authorities to more specifically target areas in the economy that need to grow, without triggering further destabilising asset price growth.

Sweden has a weakening economy, in part a result of an overvalued currency (though less so than ours). Nonetheless, the Riksbank, Sweden’s central bank, has slashed interest rates by 75 basis points to 1 per cent in the past year and is successfully forcing down the krona, the local currency, to boost export-exposed industries.

This a lesson for Australia. The balance of using macroprudential tools (controlled here by APRA) to manage credit issuance along with falling interest rates (controlled here by the RBA), could also work for Australia and could materially lower the dollar without increasing the risk of housing assets inflating or deflating too rapidly.

Meanwhile, the dollar would dramatically increase Australian competitiveness in the tradeable sectors, which would grow over time to offset our asset-price and household debt imbalance.

Australian authorities need to look at Sweden.

Leith van Onselen is the chief economist at MacroBusiness. The site offers free 2013 forecasts for the Australian economy, the Australian dollar and the top ten share picks for the year.

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Wal King joins Bumi rebellion
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Nathaniel Rothschild’s bid to gain control of Bumi, the coal venture at the centre of a dispute between Rothschild and the Bakrie Group, may struggle to win support after a major holder sold a 13 per cent stake.

Rosan Roeslani, an associate of the Bakries, sold about 24.2 million shares of the London-listed company to three separate investors, according to a statement yesterday. The sale increases the amount of votes Rothschild will need to win at the Febraury 21 shareholder vote on his plan to oust most of the board.

The voting rights associated with those shares had previously been excluded by a UK Takeover Panel ruling.

The development comes as a commissioner at the OJK – Indonesia’s financial services regulator – said yesterday that Bumi Plc may be required to make a takeover of Bumi Plc’s Indonesian unit PT Bumi Resources should Rothschild succeed in ousting the board.

‘‘As of yesterday, the voting outcome of these new buyers is still unclear,’’ Alexander Ramlie, a director of Bumi Plc, said today. ‘‘The results of the shareholder votes would probably be very tight for either side.’’

Bumi Plc was founded in 2010 when Rothschild and the Bakries bundled stakes in two Indonesian coal companies – Bumi Resources and PT Berau Coal Energy – in a $US3 billion deal. Both parties have made proposals to shareholders that would separate the Bakries from Bumi Plc, a move the current board of Bumi Plc is also pursuing.

Shares of Bumi Plc advanced 4.4 per cent in London yesterday to 394 pence. The stock, which slumped 69 per cent last year, has rebounded 43 per cent this year. Bumi Resources added 8.6 per cent to 1,010 rupiah, a six-month high, in Jakarta trading this morning.

Bloomberg

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A television producer says he’s a million dollars out of pocket because the Gold Coast’s daily newspaper ran a story about his ad calling for a “single and attractive” personal assistant.
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The career advertisement sought the new employee for a proposed reality TV show called Bikini Island.

Charles Dupois on Monday lodged defamation proceedings in the Supreme Court of Queensland seeking $1 million in economic loss from News Limited, plus another $500,000 in general and aggravated damages.

In the show, 100 girls would spend a month on a tropical island with 50 millionaires.

Mr Dupois claimed an investor pulled out after the Gold Coast Bulletin last month wrote about the production assistant ad.

Mr Dupois said the job ad was honest and upfront about the need for the assistant to be female, unattached and good-looking.

“When you have attractive women in this particular field, who are approaching clients, sponsors, branding companies … believe me, it helps you close the deals a lot more,” he told Fairfax Media.

“A lot of people don’t want to talk about this because they don’t want to talk about discrimination, but behind the scenes, this is the truth.”

Mr Dupois, 40, said he had learned from the experience of his previous reality TV show, Fantasy Island.

Mr Dupois said an unnamed investor had responded to another advertisement they had placed, looking for someone to fund $1 million in pre-production costs on the promise of a 30 per cent return.

“After that article went in [the Gold Coast Bulletin], we lost the investor, because of the innuendo drawn in it,” he said.

Gold Coast Bulletin editor Peter Gleeson said he could not comment while the issue was before the courts.

According to his court documents, Mr Dupois is also suing Channel Nine’s A Current Affair program for $50 million.

Mr Dupois maintained Bikini Island would go ahead later this year, starring him and a yet-to-be-cast model as co-hosts.

He plans to film on an island in Malaysia, Thailand or Fiji, and recruit the contestants from Croatia, Russia and Scandanavia.

“We were originally going to cast girls from Australia, but because of all this defamatory and derogatory innuendo and so on, we decided we weren’t going to do that,” he said.

Mr Dupois, who describes himself as an international recording artist and world peace ambassador, said negotiations were underway to have the show screened in 120 countries.

“What man in his right mind is not going to watch a show featuring some of the most beautiful women in the world prancing around an island in their bikinis?

“And which woman is not going to want to watch the show to compare her body and appearance, or to say something nasty – that’s the world we live in.”

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CHENNAI: The architect of Australia’s era-defining win in 2004 believes Michael Clarke’s side should not feature an abundance of spin “for the sake of it”.
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Former head coach John Buchanan says instead, the fast bowlers’ success with reverse swing would likely be their trump-card in the quest for only a second series victory in India in more than 40 years.

Buchanan was head coach almost nine years ago when Adam Gilchrist, standing in for the injured Ricky Ponting, led Australia to an historic 2-1 triumph on the subcontinent, described as the “final frontier” by the previous captain Steve Waugh.

Stung by defeat there three years earlier, Buchanan had planned meticulously a smarter way to approach India, placing primary faith in his pacemen and imploring them not simply to bowl with outright aggression, but more full and straight to split fields to temper the scoring of Sachin Tendulkar and the hosts’ all-star batting line-up.

The results were glowing: Jason Gillespie took 20 wickets at an average 16, Glenn McGrath 14 at 25 and Michael Kasprowicz nine at 28, with Shane Warne a support player in the master plan.

“One of the things that was obvious to us was the Indians tended to bat in boundaries. In other words, they’ve got to occupy the crease for a long period of time and they were able always to get a boundary away. That kept the score ticking along and reduced the risks that they needed to take,” said Buchanan, now New Zealand’s director of cricket.

“Basically, we designed a three-step strategy. One was how we were going to attack each batsman – that was always Plan A. Plan B was how do we reduce the boundaries, how do we stop them scoring? And Plan C, which we never really wanted to get to, was when they’re actually taking us apart. For example, the Kolkata experience (in 2001, where Australia was beaten by 171 runs) – what do we do then?

“The key was just sticking with it. Adam Gilchrist was captain that tour and he certainly made sure that all bowlers just stuck to a plan, whether it was Plan A, or Plan B. Very rarely did we get to Plan C because it seemed like we were able to make impact, or gradually contain them and then make impact.

“With the fast bowlers, if we could do that, it meant Warnie could basically bowl when and how we wanted him to.”

Fast-forward nearly a decade and Clarke’s Australian team has five fast-bowlers on tour – Peter Siddle, Mitchell Starc, Mitchell Johnson, James Pattinson and Jackson Bird – and in all likelihood will use three in combination in the first Test at Chennai’s Chidambaram Stadium starting on Friday.

There are several key differences between the series Buchanan planned and the one Australia are about to begin. India, flopping latterly, are not who they were. Rahul Dravid and VVS Laxman are gone, Tendulkar has not had a Test ton in two years and the other member of the old guard, Virender Sehwag, is having his future questioned.

Australia, despite losing only one Test in 14 months, does not have the same quality of personnel either, and are contemplating a first road-trip post Ponting and Mike Hussey.

Finally, there is the timing. Gilchrist’s team clinched victory in more mild November; Clarke’s side are here in less forgiving February and March.

Even so, Buchanan said the Australian team should be wary of loading up on spin-bowlers (there are four in the squad: Nathan Lyon, Xavier Doherty, all-rounder Glenn Maxwell and young West Australian Ashton Agar) just because it’s in India.

“I do think it’s a good pace attack; it depends how it adapts to the conditions it’s about to face,” Buchanan said. “They’re going into India now in February/March. That makes a difference as well because some of the wickets still provide a little bit of bounce and pace at the start of the summer, whereas potentially by this time of their season wickets have been subjected to plenty of heat and plenty of wear and possibly the ability for pace bowlers to extract good pace and bounce are limited.

“It really means that the pace bowlers have really got to look at their strategies with an old bowl and what they can do with that.

“You don’t take spinners just for the sake of taking a spinner. Indians are so used to playing spin bowling, there is no guarantee they are going to make an impact in a series.”

Another potential shortcoming for Australia is lack of experience in India, but Buchanan argues that can be overcome. He uses the example in 2004 of Clarke, who scored 151 on Test debut in Bangalore and piled on 400 for the series – second only to an outstanding Damien Martyn – as well as a brilliant 6-9 with the ball in Mumbai.

“He was a young tyro, just keen to play Test cricket, keen to experience India from a playing perspective,” Buchanan said. “He had some other people around him who had been there before and they could give him a little bit of background, but ultimately he worked out what he needed to do to embrace the conditions and he did that very well.”

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