IT price wars: government no white knight

The Asus Transformer Pad Infinity – $999 in Australia, $600 in the US. Lenovo’s ThinkPad X1 Carbon – starts at $1999 in Australia, $1299 in the US.
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A diagram explaining price discrimination.

Tech companies have given the proverbial middle finger to those complaining about high prices in Australia, leading the consumer group Choice to demand strong government action.

But despite firms showing little interest in reducing their prices based on political pressure from the likes of the Labor MP Ed Husic, a new submission to the parliamentary IT pricing inquiry by the federal Treasury warns any direct regulation of prices by government could do more harm than good.

Last week Lenovo launched its ThinkPad X1 Carbon in Australia, which it says is the world’s lightest 14-inch Ultrabook. It will start at $1999 here, compared with $US1299 in the United States.

Earlier this month ASUS released its Transformer Pad Infinity tablet in Australia at a recommended retail price of $999 – much higher than the US price of about $US600.

Lenovo said it priced its products to ensure they were “competitive with local market offerings” and that by buying Lenovo products in Australia consumers were “supporting local Australian jobs” as well as securing local support and warranty.

Asus trotted out the same line frequently used by vendors to justify gouging Australian consumers: smaller market, logistic and shipping costs, exchange rates, promotional costs and training. All of these excuses have been unpersuasive to consumer groups and the Productivity Commission.

Choice’s head of campaigns, Matt Levey, said the IT pricing parliamentary inquiry was a “great start” but wouldn’t amount to much if it did not produce “strong recommendations which prompt equally strong action”.

“Unfortunately aph.gov.au is littered with examples of detailed reports into significant issues which sit around collecting dust,” he said. “It’s not so much the inquiry which is the problem, but how the government responds.”

Huge mark-ups for Australians

Choice studied more than 200 prices for IT products and identified an approximate 50 per cent price differencebetween what Australians and US consumers pay for more or less identical products including music downloads, games and computer hardware. Dell computers were 41 per cent more expensive while Nintendo Wii games were up to 88 per cent more.

Since it conducted its analysis in July consumers have written to Choice with further examples; in some cases they could see the lower price on the US site but the sites blocked them from bypassing the Australian price when ordering:Norton Internet Security two-year subscription: $149 v $US79Roxio Easy VHS to DVD for Mac: $139 v $US79.99Asus laptop (same specs): $1400 v $US680Garmin GPS: $189 v $149

Choice wants the government to investigate whether tools to stop consumers accessing lower prices in overseas markets – such as “geo-blocking” on websites or region-coding – are anti-competitive.

In many cases, the wholesale prices charged to Australian retailers by multinational vendors are significantly higher than those offered to overseas retailers, meaning there is no way they can offer a competitive price. In the case of prices for music downloads, Apple blames the record labels while music industry sources say Apple’s market power gives it the ability to set the price.

The Labor MP Andrew Leigh wrote a submission complaining that Amazon’s range of books for the Kindle in Australia is hundreds of thousands of titles smaller than in the US, and the books that are sold in this market are significantly more expensive than everywhere else.

Monash University’s chief information officer, Dr Ian Tebbett, said high IT prices in Australia diverted resources from research and education, and particularly for students of low socio-economic backgrounds, “the costs of IT in Australia will add to their decision not to take up higher education”.

Price discrimination maximises profits: Treasury

Treasury wrote in its submission dated August 9 that price differentials that aren’t based on differential costs of supply will “generally decline over time, providing there is sufficient competitive pressure or low barriers to entry”.

But while the internet allows consumers to detect when firms are charging higher prices in one country – and buy from cheaper overseas markets – in general there were “incentives for suppliers, in the form of profits, to engage in price discrimination”.

Treasury said the evidence suggested Australian consumers pay higher prices for IT products than consumers in some other markets, but not necessarily the highest globally.

“To that end, improving local competition and increasing access to international markets are ‘no regrets’ measures that can assist in ensuring Australian consumers and business have access to goods and services at internationally competitive prices,” Treasury said.

But it warned against “more interventionist measures” that seek to dictate terms on which consumers and business transactions take place, saying this may stifle innovation and reduce competition further. It said firms should generally be free to set the prices they want

The Competition and Consumer Act (previously the Trade Practices Act) used to prohibit some forms of price discrimination by firms but the prohibition was repealed in 1995 because it reduced price flexibility and was detrimental to competition.

“Treasury considers that the current competition laws are capable of addressing anti-competitive conduct without the need for a specific price discrimination prohibition,” Treasury said.

Vendor excuses don’t hold water: Productivity Commission

The big tech companies, largely through the Australian Information Industry Association (AIIA), blamed retailers, market size, freight costs, warranty differences, rents, taxes, wages, penalty rates and importation and transport costs as some of the reasons why Australian prices are higher.

But the Productivity Commission, politicians and consumer groups have all said these cannot possibly explain the huge 50 per cent and higher mark-ups faced by Australians on some products.

The commission found that arguments made by international suppliers to defend regional price discrimination are “not persuasive, especially in the case, for example, of downloaded music, software and video where the costs of delivery to the customer are practically zero and uniform around the world”.

Adobe, one of the worst offenders when it comes to price discrimination on software products, has yet to contribute a proper justification for its pricing to the IT pricing inquiry, instead using its submission to state it had already provided feedback to the AIIA.

Other big tech firms like Apple and Microsoft refused to appear at the first public hearings for the inquiry late last month. Apple’s written submission to the inquiry was confidential and therefore cannot be published.

The Productivity Commission acknowledged that there were extra costs of doing business in Australia and the size of the market meant retailers in countries like the US – which buy larger volumes – were able to obtain goods for less.

“While Australia may be relatively close to manufacturing centres in Asia, costs can depend on trade volumes rather than distances travelled, meaning that Australia’s trade routes can be more expensive than those for other countries,” Treasury said in its submission.

Treasury also noted that the recent strength of the Australian dollar has meant the prices of goods in overseas markets are now cheaper in Australian dollar terms. And while exchange rate fluctuations occur instantly, prices of goods aren’t as easily or as quickly changed to reflect this.

This can cut both ways. In 2008, following the depreciation of the Australian dollar, Australia was the cheapest place in the world to purchase an iPod, the Commonwealth Bank has said.

Mr Husic said there would be another public hearing for the inquiry in the coming weeks.

This story Administrator ready to work first appeared on Nanjing Night Net.

US masterclass: how to grow as a retailer

High-end homewares store Williams-Sonoma is a remarkable story of growth.ANALYSIS
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The launch or rumoured launch in Australia by an international fashion apparel retailer has become a numbingly regular event. Speculation about how badly the bully boys of global retail, like Zara and Topshop, will beat up the local retailers has become a favourite sport of the retail experts.

Now, Williams-Sonoma’s impending arrival switches the focus to a different kind of fashion – upscale home furnishings.

Williams-Sonoma, a retailer that has become ubiquitous in American shopping centres since its founding by Chuck Williams in Sonoma, California in 1956, is to move into a 2000 square metre space on a pedestrian mall adjacent to Sydney’s Bondi Junction early next year.

But rest assured that it has not come to Australia to set up just one store.

Anyone associated with the retail industry – especially a small retailer with growth aspirations – should make Williams-Sonoma one of their first case studies. It is a remarkable example of how a specialty retailer can grow from one humble store into a multi-concept, multi-channel international powerhouse.

It has accomplished this using a step-by-step process of market segmentation, concept incubation, brand launch via catalogue/e-commerce and then finally, a measured store rollout. By opening stores at a slow tempo rather than helter-skelter, it has ensured limited damage in a couple of instances where a concept has underperformed and needed to be shuttered.

Laura Alber, the CEO, reportedly gushed about the company’s prospects in Australia, observing, among other things, that there was only limited competition in the Australian market. This is a truly remarkable finding considering Australia’s affluence and high rate of home ownership.

It’s also an astute and correct one.

Alber doesn’t mean there aren’t a lot of home furnishings stores in Australia. She means that none are anywhere near as targeted to specific population segments and lifestyles as Williams-Sonoma is.

Williams-Sonoma has shown expertly over the years how to use catalogues and e-commerce for market research, and how this information can in turn be used to reduce real estate risk for retailers across the world. E-commerce is not just a sales channel but a way of understanding where the response to your product is strong enough to lob a chain of physical stores.

In this instance, Australia is Williams-Sonoma’s strongest e-commerce market outside North America. (The company has e-commerce in approximately 75 countries and 44 per cent of its $US3.7 billion revenues in 2011 were derived from e-commerce and catalogues.)

This knowledge doesn’t guarantee success for the company’s Australian stores but it does lower the probability of it having to exit with its tail between its legs.

But what makes Williams-Sonoma such a masterclass in growth for ambitious retailers is its ability to segment consumer markets and develop individual retail concepts and products for each.

Williams-Sonoma currently operates 579 stores under five different banners and a further in North America. Four of these concepts – the namesake Williams Sonoma, Pottery Barn, Pottery Barn Kids and West Elm – are to open cheek-by-jowl in the forthcoming Bondi Junction space.

While Williams-Sonoma itself sells upscale kitchenware, the other three sell furnishings to customers in different life phases. West Elm is the smallest of the four with only 40 stores, but possibly the most interesting and instructive from the standpoint of a retailer case study.

Initially launched as a catalogue in 2002, the first West Elm store opened two years later in the d.u.m.b.o (‘down under the Manhattan Bridge’) neighbourhood of Brooklyn, New York, where the local population included many aspirational, design-conscious, but not-quite-yet-affluent young professionals living in small walk-up apartments. The furniture was perfectly adapted to this lifestyle group – well designed, edgy, urban, compactly sized for small living spaces and priced accessibly for a professional household on the cusp of “making it” in New York without actually being there yet.

There’s a market for that in Australia’s biggest cities.

Williams-Sonoma will not open stores willy-nilly in Australia and it should not cause tremors among the existing home goods retailers in the market. But it will add design flair and choice for some underserved segments of Australian consumers.

And for entrepreneurs who want to understand how to grow a world-class specialty retail business – this is a great case study.

Michael Baker is principal of Baker Consulting and can be reached at [email protected]南京夜网 and www.mbaker-retail南京夜网.

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Gillard’s $4 billion dental fix

The $4 billion dental health package will begin in 2014.The federal government will pour $4 billion into a dental package to provide millions of children and millions of adults on low incomes or in rural areas access to government-subsidised dental care.
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Health Minister Tanya Plibersek this morning announced that more than three million children would be eligible for the scheme, which will begin in 2014.

For adults on low incomes, $1.3 billion to fund an additional 1.4 million services will be available in the six-year package.

The changes have been made possible with the support of the Greens, who have insisted on big expansion as grounds for axing the current Medicare chronic disease dental scheme costing about $1 billion a year.

The funding comes on top of the $515 million announced in the 2012-13 budget.

”Labor believes we have a responsibility to ensure Australians who are least able to afford to go the dentist, and particularly children, should be given access to government-subsidised oral health care,” Ms Plibersek said.

Greens health spokesman Richard Di Natale flanked Ms Plibersek when she made the announcement in Sydney.

Ms Plibersek said the ‘‘unprecedented’’ package would tackle increasingly poor dental health among low-income people.

Eligible children would be able to get basic dental treatment capped at $1000 a child over two years to address dental decay, which, she said, had been increasing since the 1990s in Australia.

The package includes $2.7 billion for the treatment of children.

“While Medicare and free hospital care have been a basic right for Australians for decades, millions of people in this country still go without adequate dental care,” Ms Plibersek said.

“Labor believes we have a responsibility to ensure Australians who are least able to afford to go the dentist, and particularly children, should be given access to government-subsidised oral health care.”

The government would also provide $1.3 billion to states and territories for expanded dental services for low-income adults but the funding would depend on them at least maintaining current levels of dental services.

There would also be $225 million for dental infrastructure and workforce expansion in outer metropolitan and regional and rural areas.

Ms Plibersek said the public dental scheme would now be able to focus on prevention measures.

‘‘Many more low-income Australians will be able to get not just crisis treatment, when their teeth are falling out or gums abscessing, but actually moving back to a period … of prevention and early intervention,’’ she said.

‘‘The investment today will bear rewards in 10, 20, 30 years’ time.’’

Senator Di Natale said for a wealthy country, Australians had poor oral health. ‘‘Poor oral health leads to a range of complications … one in 10 visits to the GP are because people can’t afford to see a dentist,’’ he said.

Ms Plibersek confirmed the government would close the Chronic Disease Dental Scheme, set up by Opposition Leader Tony Abbott when he was health minister under the Howard government.

‘‘It’s been one of the most widely misused schemes ever designed in our public health system,’’ she said. ‘‘I’m very pleased to see the back of it.’’

The scheme was initially estimated by the Howard government to cost $90 million a year, but massive over-servicing and rorting had led to it costing $80 million a month, Ms Plibersek said.

The Medicare teen dental scheme would also be closed and replaced by the broader scheme for children aged up to 18.

Ms Plibersek said the 2012/13 budget allocation of just more than $500 million would be spent first, before the children’s scheme started from January 1, 2014 and the adult scheme from July 2014.

Ms Plibersek said the changes would need new legislation but would be brought to parliament as a change of regulation, which had the backing of the Australian Greens.

Asked where the funding would come from, she said the government would find savings in the budget which would be outlined in the mid-year economic and fiscal outlook later this year.

‘‘We have a very good record of finding savings in the budget,’’ she said. ‘‘We found $30 billion of savings in the last one.’’

The government remained committed to delivering a surplus budget in 2012/13, she said.

Ms Plibersek predicted Mr Abbott would say no to Labor’s dental reform ‘‘like he says no to everything’’.

She said there were capacity restraints in the current system and that was why the reforms would come into effect in 2014.

‘‘There’s some parts of the country where you can’t find a chair and there’s some parts of the country where you can find a chair but not a dentist,’’ she said, adding it would take time to improve access to services.

‘‘This is a bedrock scheme. It can be built up over time.’’

with AAP

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US body clock geneticists take 2017 Nobel Medicine Prize

The team’s work revealed the role of genes in setting the “circadian clock” which regulates sleep and eating patterns, hormones and body temperature, the Nobel committee said.

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“Their discoveries explain how plants, animals and humans adapt their biological rhythm so that it is synchronised with the Earth’s revolutions.”

All life on Earth is tuned to the rotation of our planet. Scientists have long known that living organisms, including humans, have an internal timekeeper that helps them anticipate and adapt to the rhythm of the day.

Hall, 72, Rosbash, 73, and Young, 68, “were able to peek inside our biological clock and elucidate its inner workings,” the jury said.

They identified genes that regulate the clock, and the mechanism by which light can synchronise it.

Rosbash told Swedish Radio he was rattled when the committee’s call woke him from his sleep at 5:10 am.

“I was called on the landline next to my bed which never rings unless someone has died or something of this magnitude happens,” he recounted. “I was breathless, both literally and figuratively. My wife said: ‘Please start to breathe’.”

Young told reporters in New York the prize “really did take me by surprise.”

“I really had trouble even getting my shoes on this morning. You know, I’d go and pick up the shoes and then I’d realise I needed socks and then I’d realise I needed to put my pants on first.”

Recommended reading’Every dimension of health’ 

A disrupted circadian clock is what causes jetlag — which happens when the internal clock and external environment move out of sync as people rapidly change time zones.

The clock also regulates sleep, which is critical for normal brain function. Circadian dysfunction has been linked to depression, bipolar disorder, cognitive function, poor memory formation and some neurological diseases.

Studies have indicated that a chronic misalignment between a person’s lifestyle and the circadian clock — when doing irregular shift work, for example — might be associated with an increased risk for cancer, neurodegenerative diseases, metabolic disorders and inflammation.

Scientists are working hard on methods to alter the rhythm of errant clocks as a means to “improve human health,” the Nobel jury said.

Using the fruit fly as a model organism, this year’s laureates isolated a gene that controls the daily biological rhythm, called the period gene.

“They showed that this gene encodes a protein that accumulates in the cell during the night and is then degraded during the day,” the Nobel statement said.

“Subsequently they identified additional protein components of this machinery, exposing the mechanism governing the self-sustaining clockwork inside the cell.”

The three scientists will share the prize of nine million Swedish kronor (about $1.1 million or 937,000 euros).

“Just about every facet of our body changes predictably over the course of the day and night and these changes are driven by this internal timing mechanism,” Michael Hastings of the Medical Research Council Laboratory of Molecular Biology in Cambridge told AFP.

“Every dimension of our health, every dimension of our personality or reactions to medicines, our reactions to disease are variable and are on the very precise programme set by this internal body clock,” he said.

Next up: Waves or exoplanets? 

Rosbash, born in 1944 in Kansas City, Missouri, to parents who had fled Nazi Germany, received his doctoral degree in 1970 at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and has since 1974 been on faculty at Brandeis University, where he worked closely with Hall on his prize-winning research. 

Hall had originally planned to attend medical school when he entered Amherst College in Massachusetts in 1963, but halfway through his bachelor’s degree his curiosity for medicine was replaced by one for basic science. 

He went on to earn his doctoral degree in 1971 at the University of Washington, before joining Brandeis University in 1974. He is now retired.

Young received his doctoral degree at the University of Texas in Austin in 1975, and has been on faculty at Rockefeller University in New York since 1978.

On Tuesday, the physics prize laureates will be revealed, with the discoveries of gravitational waves and exoplanets both regularly mentioned as possible winners. 

The chemistry prize will be announced on Wednesday, the literature prize on Thursday and the peace prize on Friday. The economics prize will wrap things up on Monday, October 9.

Palaszczuk ‘chill’ on election speculation

Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk has poured cold water on election speculation, telling journalists to “chill out” about when the election will be held.

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Late last week many observers were tipping the election would be called on Tuesday, but polls showing the government losing ground slightly to the opposition put the brakes on the momentum.

The premier on Tuesday seemed to rule out calling the election in the next fortnight, indicating the government would sit through the entirety of next week’s sitting of state parliament.

“The only people asking about the election, can I say, are journalists,” Ms Palaszczuk told reporters.

“Not one member of the public has come up to me and asked me about the election, so let’s stop the speculation, let’s everybody chill out and relax, because we’ve got a lot of work to do.”

The government still has to pass a number of pieces of legislation, including introducing industrial manslaughter laws and expunging past homosexual convictions.

Deputy Opposition Leader Deb Frecklington hit out at the premier’s comments, labelling them “out of touch”.

“The Premier’s excuse today that she ‘has a lot of work to do’ is almost laughable given she has done nothing for nearly three years,” Ms Frecklington said.

The deputy opposition leader ironically hopes to win her regional seat of Nanango with the help of Labor preferences, with Labor’s decision to put One Nation last likely to send a number of votes her way and fend off a potential challenge by the minor party.

The data was in polling conducted by ReachTel, commissioned by unions and obtained by the Courier Mail, which Ms Frecklington said was “telling”.

“This shows how desperate the Labor government are to be releasing their own polling,” Ms Frecklington told reporters in Mackay.

While in addition to surging support in individual seats like Nanango, One Nation’s primary vote has again lifted to sit around 18 per cent statewide.

A second ReachTel poll also shows the government trailing the LNP 52-48 per cent on a two-party preferred basis.

The election is due by May at the latest, but has been widely tipped to be held before the end of the year.

However, with the government unlikely to hold a December election, the window available for the premier to call it this year and still hold a poll in November after a minimum 26-day campaign is starting to close.

Turnbull and gas giants seal supply deal

Big gas companies have cemented a promise Australia will not run short in the coming year after meeting with Malcolm Turnbull for the second time in a week.

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Santos, Origin Energy and Shell on Tuesday signed an initial agreement, arrived at last week, to offer enough gas to the local market to cover an expected shortfall in 2018.

“I want to thank you very much for those commitments and by ensuring that there will not be a shortfall of gas next year, that means we will not be required to place restrictions on exports,” the prime minister said in Canberra.

Zoe Yujnovich, from Shell Australia, is hopeful gas giants and the federal government can forge a path forward on gas supply after a heated few months of debate.

“There have been some difficult and tense moments and we appreciate the challenge that you’ve given to us,” Ms Yujnovich said during the meeting at Parliament House.

“We hope that through the heads of agreement, we can find a path forward to make sure that the domestic market is serviced and that indeed, there is enough available gas for the market, which we stand behind and are committed to deliver.”

The government has received two expert reports warning the eastern states faces a shortfall of between 54 and 108 petajoules of gas in 2018.

One petajoule is enough to meet the needs of all the households in Warrnambool in Victoria, Wollongong or Penrith in NSW, or a large industrial user for a full year.

While more than enough gas is being extracted across the country to meet domestic needs, most of it is tied up in export contracts and some companies had planned to sell another portion on international markets.

Tuesday’s talks were expected to focus on how to cover the shortfall if it reaches more than 100PJ, which could happen if there’s a run of bad weather preventing renewables from generating as much power as projected, or if a coal-fired generator unexpectedly breaks down.

Ministers see the deal over exports as a short-term fix for rising gas prices and have also been pressuring the states – especially NSW and Victoria – to ease restrictions on gas development and exploration.

They have raised the prospect that states which have gas reserves but don’t exploit them could lose some of their share of the GST under a review of the tax’s distribution.

Home approvals on track for gradual easing

Building approvals have risen slightly lower than expected in August despite a rebound in apartment permits, underlining the gradual easing in the housing construction sector.

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Approvals for new homes rose 0.4 per cent during the month, missing market expectations of a 1.2 per cent increase.

Approvals for private sector houses slipped 0.6 per cent in August, data from the Australian Bureau of Statistics showed on Tuesday.

However, permits in the volatile ‘other dwellings’ category, which includes apartment blocks and townhouses, were 4.8 per cent higher in August at 8,496.

Although total dwelling approvals are down 15.5 per cent over the 12 months to August, economists said these are still at a relatively high level compared with past cycles.

“This high level of activity supports our view that the decline in residential construction cycle should be gradual and reasonably shallow,” CBA economist Kristian Clifton said.

“Strong and rising population growth means the demand for new housing remains firm and, despite the record number of new homes built in recent years, there is no sign of oversupply overall.”

Housing construction in Australia has also continued to be supported by record low interest rates, but rising household debt levels have increasingly worried regulators.

The Australian Prudential Regulation Authority tightened investor lending rules in March, forcing major lenders to increase rates and make investor loans more expensive.

As a result, approvals have trended lower across the four largest states of NSW, Victoria, Queensland and WA, but strong population growth has helped absorb new supply.

Tuesday’s figures showed approvals for the three largest capitals of Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane at negative annual rates, with the monthly decline steepest in Sydney, with dwelling approvals down 9.5 per cent in August.

ANZ economist Daniel Gradwell said recent data has indicated that the downturn in approvals is likely to be capped.

“This result provides further support to our view that the downturn in new approvals has largely run its course,” Mr Gradwell said.

“We continue to expect approvals to remain around these still-elevated levels, while a significant backlog of work will ensure construction activity remains solid for some time yet.”

The data helped push the Australian dollar down to 78.15 US cents at 1410 AEDT, from 78.29 US cents just before it was released.

It then dipped below 78 cents after the Reserve Bank held the central cash rate at 1.5 per cent.

An hour a week can keep depression at bay

Just an hour of exercise a week can help ward off depression, a landmark study led by Australia’s Black Dog Institute has found.

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The international study has shown for the first time that even minor lifestyle changes can result in significant mental health benefits.

Researchers monitored the exercise habits and symptoms of both depression and anxiety among 33,908 Norwegian adults over 11 years.

People who did no exercise at all had a 44 per cent increased chance of developing depression, compared with those who were active for just one to two hours a week.

They also found 12 per cent of cases of depression could have been prevented if participants undertook just a single hour of exercise.

But the news wasn’t so good for anxiety, with no association found between the level and intensity of exercise and the chances of developing that disorder.

The study’s lead author says the findings are important given the rise of sedentary lifestyles and growing rates of depression worldwide.

In Australia, one million people suffer from depression but 20 per cent of the adult population does no regular exercise, and more than a third are active for less than 1.5 hours a week.

“We’ve known for some time that exercise has a role to play in treating symptoms of depression,” says Associate Professor Samuel Harvey from Black Dog Institute and the University of NSW.

“But this is the first time we have been able to quantify the preventative potential of physical activity in terms of reducing future levels of depression.”

Researchers are still trying to determine why exercise has a protective effect.

“But we believe it is from the combined impact of the various physical and social benefits of physical activity,” Dr Harvey says.

The study involved researchers from Black Dog Institute, Kings College London, UNSW Sydney, Norwegian Institute of Public Health, University of Bergen (Norway), Nordland Hospital Trust (Norway) and the Arctic University of Norway.

It has just been published in the American Journal of Psychiatry.

Same-sex marriage: 9.2 million forms returned

Almost 60 per cent of eligible Australians have cast their votes in the same-sex marriage postal survey, but campaigners from both sides of the debate insist the fight is far from over.

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The Australian Bureau of Statistics received about 9.2 million ballots by the end of last week, accounting for 57.5 per cent of the forms it sent out.

“We hope that this update will serve as a reminder to those who have not submitted their form to do so promptly if they wish to have their say,” deputy statistician Jonathan Palmer said on Tuesday.

MORE NEWS:

The ABS, which published the estimate on Tuesday afternoon, will provide an update every week until the postal survey closes on November 7.

The count is based on Australia Post’s assessment of the number of containers of sorted envelopes rather than a count of individual forms.

Marriage equality campaigner Alex Greenwich said research and polling showed a number of young people had filled in their forms but not yet returned them.

“So you have not voted until you have posted your ‘yes’,” he told reporters in Melbourne.

“Do not leave your survey form in your gym bag or on the kitchen table, put that in the box. This document is too important to help shape our nation as a fairer and more equal place.”

The Coalition for Marriage says its campaigners will continue tirelessly until the ballot closes and the final person casts their vote.

“The statistics released today tell us that one-in-two Australians are yet to participate in this survey,” marriage equality opponent Lyle Shelton said in a statement.

“We want to make sure everyone has their say. Half of the country is yet to make up its mind – this conversation is still wide open.”

The results will be published on November 15.

Nine CEO gets pay rise despite annual loss

Nine Entertainment has rewarded ratings over revenue, with chief executive Hugh Marks awarded 70 per cent of his cash bonuses despite the broadcaster making a $203 million annual loss.

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Mr Marks took home $2.77 million in the year to June 30, including a salary of $1.38 million, cash bonuses of $895,000, and shares worth almost $450,000.

He was paid $1.14 million in the previous financial year, in which he was CEO for eight months.

Nine’s revenue dropped three per cent in 2016/17, and writedowns on assets including its TV network contributed to its loss for the year, while earnings rose two per cent.

Media analyst and Fusion Strategy managing director Steve Allen said Nine’s executive team had their bonuses aligned with the company’s market share, ratings and share price performance.

Nine shares rose 31 per cent in the 2016/17 financial year.

“In a shrinking media market, ratings and revenue share would feature strongly – and in those (Mr Marks) is delivering,” Mr Allen said.

Bonuses for Mr Marks were also related to his performance in improving supplementary revenue streams and content production.

Nine’s leadership in the key 25-54 age demographic has been enhanced by the success of productions like True Story with Hamish and Andy, and helped build its 9Now catch up service, which boasts 4.3 million registered users.

Subscribers for Nine’s on demand joint-venture, Stan, have also grown by 50 per cent.

Despite Nine’s market leading position, Mr Allen suggested its robust remuneration packages would eventually attract investor scrutiny.

“Nine’s board and executives seem to be doing a good deal better than shareholders and sooner or later they will be held to account,” Mr Allen said.

RBA’s Lowe upbeat but no clue on rates

While many economists have been talking up the risks of higher interest rates in the months ahead, the Reserve Bank has yet to show its hand.

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The central bank left the cash rate at it record low 1.5 per cent following its monthly board meeting on Tuesday – a rate that has stood since August last year.

Reserve Bank governor Philip Lowe’s post-meeting statement maintained the upbeat tone of his recent speeches but gave no clue as to when borrowers could expect higher lending rates.

Financial markets are predicting the cash rate to rise to 1.75 per cent by August next year.

Dr Lowe acknowledged the 0.8 per cent expansion in economic growth during the June quarter, the first opportunity the board had had to respond to the most recent national accounts.

“This outcome and other recent data are consistent with the Bank’s expectation that growth in the Australian economy will gradually pick up over the coming year,” Dr Lowe said.

He noted employment has continued to grow strongly over recent months and how various forward-looking indicators point to further solid growth ahead.

While job advertisement figures released on Tuesday showed a flat result for September, this followed six straight months of increases and still stand 12.5 per cent higher than a year ago.

Separate data over the past couple of days also backed the governor’s view that the previous hotspot of the Sydney housing market is coming off the boil.

Building approvals in NSW fell almost 10 per cent in August, a day after data showed Sydney prices declined for the first time in 17 months in September,

Approvals across the country rose 0.4 per cent, but were still 15.5 per cent down on the year.

Dr Lowe says business conditions are at a high level but against this, slow growth in wages and high levels of household debt are likely to constrain growth in household spending.

Such contrasting thoughts were borne out by two surveys on Tuesday.

Debt recovery firm Prushka found two-thirds of small and medium-sized firms are confident about business conditions, up from 45 per cent when surveyed 12 months ago.

“This level of confidence is surprising in the current economic climate,” Prushka chief executive officer Roger Mendelson said.

In contrast, the weekly ANZ-Roy Morgan consumer confidence index eased 0.6 per cent, its second consecutive week of decline, to remain only just above its long-term average.

Australian guitarist tells horror Vegas mass shooting story

An Australian guitarist has told how he ran for his life when bullets from what appeared to be “machine guns” began blasting at a concert crowd in on the Las Vegas strip.

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Ben Carey, who had played with his all-star band Elvis Monroe at the Route 91 Festival on the Las Vegas Strip earlier Sunday, was in the crowd to watch headliner Jason Aldean on Sunday night.

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He was standing with band mate Bryan Hopkins when a male crowd member to his right dropped to the ground.

Then two women to his left fell. One was lifeless. Panic set in.

“We realised we were under machine-gun fire and I grabbed Bryan’s arm and screamed ‘run’,” Carey, 42, who has previously played in bands including Savage Garden and Lighthouse, told CNN.

High above the outdoor concert in a two-room suite in the Mandalay Bay casino American man Stephen Paddock, 64, had smashed two holes in windows and was firing an arsenal of high-powered weapons with scopes and positioned on tripods.

Carey and Hopkins had no idea where the bullets were coming from.

They thought there were gunmen on the concert grounds.

A vigil honours the victims that were killed and injured when a gunman fired multiple shots into a crowd at a music festival in Las Vegas.AAP

Carey got knocked down by a stampeding crowd, lost track of Hopkins, then got up and ran to a fence but behind him were “thousands” of other panicked people trying to escape.

“I screamed at the guys next to me, ‘We have to break the fence’,” Carey said.

They pushed the fence down and people flowed out but then some fell to the ground.

“There were people falling left, right and centre,” he said.

“I didn’t know if they were tripping or shot.”

Carey then began running left and right to dodge the bullets that were still raining down and at the urging of another person he dived into a gutter until the shooting briefly stopped.

The Australian eventually made it down the strip to the MGM casino but there was another harrowing situation.

“A sea of people came into the MGM screaming ‘shooter’ and pandemonium set out and once again we were caught in a funnel of people,” he said.

Carey eventually found a safe place near the MGM pool.

Paddock, who had 23 guns in his hotel room, killed 59 people and injured 527 others.

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2017 set to be costliest year: insurer QBE

Insurance giant QBE is increasing the amount of money it puts aside for natural disasters as 2017 shapes as the most costly year for the global insurance sector.

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QBE says it is increasing its 2017 large individual risk and catastrophe claims allowance to $US1.75 billion following hurricanes Harvey, Irma and Maria in the Gulf of Mexico, the Caribbean and parts of the US, and Mexico’s earthquakes.

“Given catastrophe losses to date, 2017 will likely prove to be the costliest year in the history of the global insurance industry,” the company said in a statement.

Damage costs from cyclone Debbie in Australia, combined with the latest natural disasters overseasm have all impacted on QBE’s businesses, the company said.

Despite the uncertainty around the cost of the hurricanes and earthquakes, QBE said it had increased its claims allowance which would mean a pre-tax hit to earnings of about $US600 million.

Chief executive John Neal said the catastrophic events over the past month alone had caused substantial and widespread property and infrastructure damage.

“While it is too early to speculate how much reinsurance and primary insurance pricing will rise as a result of the recent catastrophe experience, QBE is well placed to benefit from price rises with much of our reinsurance programs already purchased for 2018,” he said.

The total net cost of large individual risk and catastrophe claims was $US1.056 billion in 2015/16, and $US1.067 billion in the year before that.

Shares in QBE dropped 36 cents, or 3.5 per cent, to a 10 month low of $9.82.