NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann: Keeping tabs on the money-men

In the last decade's bull market, deals were being done left, right and centre. Photo / Thinkstock
In the last decade's bull market, deals were being done left, right and centre. Photo / Thinkstock

So, where to start? No pressure, but this is the first column in the first business section of the new look daily Herald - I'd better have something to say. Our consultant on this project, Andrew Jaspan (former editor of the Melbourne Age), suggested something personal and a bit of a call to arms.

What is Business news? Why is it so important? Why am I so committed to it?

I am still sometimes surprised I ended up here.

Certainly there is no reason why the 19-year-old, long haired, surfing, sociology-student version of myself ought to have evolved such a passion for the business world.

You could plot the progression but it wouldn't make much of a chart. All over the shop.

A stint in the City of London must have helped. In the 1990s, while living the meandering Generation X dream as an office temp, I stumbled into the accounts department of legendary commodity trader Marc Rich.

Rich was a US citizen who, at the time I worked for him, was also on the FBI's most wanted listed for tax evasion for trading with the Iranians during the era of the hostage crisis.

He had made it to the safety of Switzerland and could never visit the London office ... which made it pretty loose.

Bespoke suited wide-boy traders strutted around like star footballers while we crunched the numbers and tried to make them fit with the arcane expectations of our Swiss accountant bosses.

It was eye opening and fun.

Eventually Rich was pardoned, controversially, by Bill Clinton in his last day in office.

I came home about the same time and went back to journalism with a new financially literate eye on the world.

The challenge of getting to grips with the business world is compelling - its language and its unspoken nuances.

I'll have been business editor of the New Zealand Herald for five years this month. It is a privileged position to be in - for all the Business Herald team.

We are privy to an off-the-record world of conversations with some of the richest and most powerful people in the country.

Business journalists are often accused of being conservative or mouthpieces for business. Why aren't we more political?

Well, we are, sort of. We are pro-business. We're for the creation of wealth. We're for entrepreneurship, innovation, invention and the general bettering of the human condition.

We don't dedicate great column centimetres to the political debate around business matters. That is not our primary job. Our job is to bring you that vital information - unfiltered. It's up to you what you do with it.

Go and start a business, trade some shares or write an article that gets students out in the streets protesting.

We want to give you the information you need to understand the economy and the business world.

We cover the whole spectrum - from the mechanics of the smallest business to the mind-bending, multi-trillion dollar quantitative easing measures being taken by treasuries in Europe and the US.

And we do keep watch on the system. We understand it well enough to call to account those who misuse it.

The obvious example is something like executive pay. In a way, that sets our tone. We get it, we understand supply and demand.

CEO salaries aren't so different to the kind of money paid to the elite of world sport, though sports figures seldom draw the same outrage.

But even allowing for that, those big salaries come with big expectations of performance. And that is where our corporate leaders should be held to account.

When a company presents annual results with net profit buried beneath piles of unusual items and normalisations, we'll put the bottom line back at the the top of the story.

We will report the ebitdaf profit or whatever fashionable corporates are highlighting these days.

But we'll look at what those unusual items are so you can decide if you think they are reasonable.

We'll also look at things like their cash flow and debt levels. We'll talk to experts who know a lot more about issues that might be buried in the numbers.

That's just the listed companies of course, the private companies are more difficult and almost always more litigious.

But that's the challenge. That's the game. That's what keeps me interested.

I did most of my market reporting in the heady days of last decade's bull market and private equity boom. Deals were being done left, right and centre and there was big money at stake. Bankers would get very upset if you wrote things that destabilised their deals. It was great fun.

Times have been tough for so long now that this really does feel like another era.

The flat economy we have now is not going to change quickly.

New Zealanders are going to have to be financially smart and literate to maintain the kind of lifestyles we've become accustomed to.

And we want to help people do that, too.

We want you learn something when you read the business section, even more than we want to entertain you.

That's why so many people read business sections already and that's what makes them increasingly relevant in tough economic times.

But if we can make you smile or pause in awe at the bizarre machinations of it all then we'll be happy with that too.

- NZ Herald

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NZ Herald business editor at large

Liam Dann is business editor at large at the New Zealand Herald. He has been a journalist for 20 years, covering business for the last 14 of them. He has also worked in the banking sector in London and travelled extensively. His passion is for Markets and Economics, because they are the engine of the New Zealand economy. He hosts The Economy Hub video show every Thursday.

Read more by Liam Dann

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