Liam Dann on business
Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, Liam Dann, discusses New Zealand and international financial matters

Liam Dann: Get ready to grab the economic sunshine


It has been a good summer for the fake-tan industry, which is nice because apparently it's been a bit rough elsewhere.

Sales of artificial tanning products are up about 91 per cent on this time last year. Meanwhile sunscreen sales are down about 17 per cent and sun and sunburn remedies fell 20 per cent, according to research agency Nielsen. It just goes to show there is always a business opportunity for someone somewhere.

That's important because early signs are that 2012 is going to serve up more of the same economic stagnation we've been living with for the past few years.

Despite the rain, the Christmas break offered a brief respite from the deluge of grim economic data. Europe was quiet and some snippets of positive data out of the United States offered some cause for optimism.

But the ugly stuff arrived again on cue with the big bang of an S&P downgrade for seven European nations including France.

Economists such as ANZ's Cameron Bagrie and BNZ's Tony Alexander were unsurprised by the European downgrades, but both agreed they served as a reminder to us all that the event we have come to know as the Global Financial Crisis is far from over.

This week a fresh round of local data arrived to make it clear - if we didn't already know - that the last quarter of last year wasn't flash for the domestic economy. Bagrie puts it pretty succinctly when he talks about "grumpy growth".

Europe may be headed for recession but New Zealand should maintain some growth if just because it is underpinned by good prices and excellent production figures for our agriculture sector.

It's the domestic economy and retailing in general that are going to continue to feel it very hard for a while yet.

The reality is that households are still more focused on saving than spending.

That rebalancing is important for the longer-term strength of the economy but it is a painful transition - and a painfully slow one.

So the trick will be - for all of us involved in the business sector, including those writing about it - to look for the opportunities.

This a year to celebrate those who find ways to do business and thrive in a flat economy.

There will be plenty of success stories, there always are, that's part of the wonderful Darwinian resilience of business activity.

And there are clear signs that we we are closer to the end of this cycle than the beginning.

One of those is the pick up in the activity of private equity companies.

Among the most aggressive operators of the investment world, a number of Australasian and US players have started to eye up deals in New Zealand. It's part of the natural regeneration of the business landscape and it is good to see it happening.

They say fortune favours the bold but that is only partly true. Fortune also favours those with good timing.

For many businesses right now the struggle is one of survival and the focus remains quite rightly on costs.

But ultimately a cost focus doesn't offer a long-term path for any business. Growing revenue is the way forward.

The same holds for the Government and the nation as a whole.

New Zealand still has plenty of work to do to rebalance the books and get itself clear of the kind of debt levels that would be problematic if we suffered a serious hit to exports.

Countries such as Greece have left it too long and now have little option but to slash spending and implement policies of austerity.

New Zealand still has the opportunity to push harder on the revenue lever and get back in the black by growing GDP.

With our export links to Asia through free-trade deals and the demand for food and other natural resources there is every reason for optimism about the long-term economic outlook.

Short term there's some more tough times we're going to have to ride out for sure - but it is more of the same. Even Europe's woes are unlikely to be too surprisingly grim from here. Grim - but predictable.

The past few years and what's left of this downturn will leave New Zealand business leaner, meaner and hopefully smarter than it was after a decade of soft debt-fuelled growth.

It might take a bit of fake tan to get through from here but we should be ready to grab those glimpses of sunshine as they arrive and make the most of them.

- NZ Herald

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