Liam Dann: Keep calm, all things must pass

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Well, 2008 turned out to be a bit of a bumpy one.

That may be a small understatement. But if you're reading this on the beach, relaxing with a cold drink and really hanging out to read one more of those doom-and-gloom-laden opinion pieces before the year ends ... then you're out of luck.

Here is a forecast for 2009.

There will be a downturn. It will fall somewhere between Mad Max and "a bit bumpy" in severity.

Other business commentators may offer more detail but few will be proved so accurate in their predictions.

We know the barbarians are coming. We've stocked up the larder and closed the city gates.

In medieval times when the great Khan's army was on the march it was helpful for the scouts to return with news that he was on his way with a horde of 10,000.

But scouts who come back screaming "he's going to boil us all in oil and eat our children!" don't really add a lot of value. So here's to a year of measured and responsible commentary in 2009.

We can't afford to panic.

One suspects that anyone with enough of a brain to follow what is happening has plenty to worry about already. Those who aren't paying attention now won't be swayed by the apocalyptic speculation of the media. They'll just have to deal with the hard reality when it arrives.

Let's just be realistic about the fact that things will be getting worse, not better, for a while. So brace yourself, but keep smiling. Life will go on.

Some people might say you can't laugh about a crisis as serious as this one. But those people are wrong.

Clearly you can laugh about it - as anyone who has heard the one about the capital of Iceland will agree.

What's the capital of Iceland? ...about $3.50.

What people mean to say - P.J. O'Rourke originally made this point - is you shouldn't laugh about it. Which is a different thing altogether and still entirely debatable.

The Iceland joke is especially funny because it is about people who live a long way away and who have worse problems than us. As New Zealand's Government heads deeper into deficit it may lose some of its comic appeal.

So what the hell happened in 2008?

The year was going along fine. We were all braced for an economic slowdown, sure. But it was going to be pretty run of the mill.

The meltdown of the local finance company sector had continued on its merry way but appeared to be a peculiarly Kiwi phenomenon.

Then suddenly with the collapse of Lehman on September 14 the financial world imploded. By October 10 credit markets were frozen, stock markets were in free-fall. The world was truly on the brink of something terrible.

The total collapse never came, of course. That's because the United States, Britain, the Europeans, the Japanese and the Chinese have committed trillions to propping up banks in the past three months.

But much damage has been done.

If there is an upside, perhaps it is that we've watched giant investment banks make exactly same naive investing mistakes as Ma and Pa of Eketahuna.

The thousands of local investors left feeling bruised and embarrassed about the way they handed over money to outfits like Bridgecorp and Blue Chip can take some comfort in the fact they were not alone. How exactly the likes of Lehman and Bear Stearns and all the rest managed to get themselves up to their necks in the same kind of high-risk property speculation is a mystery for the historians to solve.

The meltdown has left us a world in which we can no longer rely on easy credit to fill the gaps in our economies. That's left some very big gaps indeed. It seems every developed country in the world plans to go deeper into debt next year to try and stimulate growth.

Exactly who is going to buy all the bonds they plan to issue to fund that debt is a bit of a worry. That's another understatement, of course. It could become a very big problem in 2009.

The Economist research division reckons the top-performing economies by GDP growth will be: Qatar, Angola, Congo, Malawi and China - in that order. No pressure, China, but if you decide to rein in spending we're all screwed. I don't think many Congolese had a trillion dollars of US Treasury bonds on their Christmas wish list.

But then they probably have other things to worry about - as do many others in the developing world.

With that in mind here are some final predictions for 2009:

No one in New Zealand will starve to death. No one will die from cholera. There will be another rugby season. The All Blacks will win more than they lose. The Black Caps will lose more than they'll win. Hollywood will keep making movies. The music industry will continue to turn out hip young things. Beer and wine will remain cheap and freely available. Some of us will drink too much of it. By the end of the year we'll be shocked at how quickly it has gone ... and we'll have survived it. Happy New Year all.

* Liam Dann is editor of the Business Herald

- NZ Herald

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