Liam Dann 's Opinion

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann: Actually - there's cause for optimism

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It hasn't been a good six months for the country economically, but the signs of renewal are there.

The downturn lurches on like some horror movie nightmare, lets hope the latest grim data is just a last twist in the tale. Photo / Supplied
The downturn lurches on like some horror movie nightmare, lets hope the latest grim data is just a last twist in the tale. Photo / Supplied

You know that bit in the horror film - the predictable yet still startling moment when the beast, vanquished and bloody, lurches back to life to give us one last scare before crumbling to dust?

Let's hope that's where we are at with this horror show of an economy. It hasn't been a good six months that's for sure.

A succession of lousy data - including unemployment, retail spending and the latest grim Auckland business confidence survey - have all hit hard after the false comfort of a big GDP bump early in the year.

Gross domestic product rose 1.1 per cent in the March quarter (reported in June), thumping economists' expectations of 0.5 per cent. It was the strongest quarterly growth for five years. So what happened? Why did it things look so promising and then go to custard? And does that mean we are back in the mire?

We had a wet summer, the grass grew and the economy reaped the benefit of a bumper dairy export season.

But that cash has not flowed through the domestic economy.

It has been ploughed into repayment of farm debt. Some of it will have been spent fixing fences and on other capital investment and some of will have been saved as a buffer as fears of dairy price volatility persist.

So while the extra export money coming in was a good thing for our economy, it hasn't been particularly stimulatory.

The strong dairy economy also underpins the currency in the eyes of foreign traders and so the dollar has stayed high. That's hurting exporters.

Meanwhile, demand from our key export markets has remained subdued - particularly outside of agriculture. Europe is in recession again. The United States is flat and China has been flirting with the prospect of a hard landing. Australia - our biggest market - has been subdued, nervous about China and feeling the falls in hard commodity prices.

The latest Auckland Chamber of Commerce quarterly business confidence survey showed the lowest levels of confidence among Auckland business owners in 12 months.

The survey was done last week with responses from just under 1000 Auckland business owners and managers.

"It seems that uncertainty in the economy is delaying businesses making decisions to grow and employ and yet that uncertainty is unnecessary," chamber chief executive Michael Barnett suggested.

"We have so many major projects in Auckland that could be accelerated and used to stimulate our economy, instead we have businesses that have trimmed down while waiting for a recovery that has not arrived and now they are looking at further cuts to their businesses."

It all seems pretty gloomy. But let's not despair. The history of economic downturns suggests the darkest moments come right before the dawn.

That most socially brutal of the economic stats, unemployment, is always the laggard of the bunch. So when a turning point comes it may do so in the shadow of the worst of the business and worker pain.

Does anyone remember green shoots?

They were all the rage at about this time in 2009. One year after the financial crisis and suddenly "green shoots" were the business buzz words for optimism about a post GFC rebound.

It was one of those weird media phenomena where we all dutifully reported the trend while writing about how lame it was. It was woefully early to be talking about recovery at that time.

Just 12 months earlier we'd been writing that this was a crisis that the world would be living with for at least five years and perhaps a decade.

So it has proved. But that doesn't mean it wasn't a positive distraction. Business should always retain an optimistic outlook - even as costs are cut.

And now - after five years of slow, painful rebalancing - is a much better time to be looking for signs of life.

The Bloomberg feature in today's Business Herald makes the case for a rebound in the US and Chinese economies over the coming 12 months.

Put aside the market angst we're about to go through in the run up to the "fiscal cliff" - America is ready to grow again. China has a new leadership intent on maintaining strong economic growth.

Europe still looks like a basket case but if we do see a positive shift in US and Chinese confidence then that will flow quickly through to global demand for commodities. Australia will cheer up and conditions will be looking good for New Zealand too.

Renewed global confidence would also see the US dollar rise and that is the surest way to bring our dollar down and give exporters the break they need.

An international upswing just as the domestic stimulus of the Christchurch rebuild kicks into gear could be the circuit breaker we need.

Oh, and throw in a bit more rain this summer. Sorry. November was wetter than average which at least gives farm pastures a green start going into the dry season. The last thing we can afford at this time is a drought. The weather remains a very real and underrated economic risk in this country.

But the right signs are there. The odds on a real sustainable recovery are growing.

Sure, what we mean by recovery has changed a lot in five years. We can't expect to suddenly bounce back to GDP growth above 3 per cent. There isn't the Government spending to inflate it and our policy makers are yet to engineer any kind of transformational economic boost in productivity.

But if we can kick this painful, lumpy, "two steps forward one step back" path we're on, then a steady rate in excess of 2 per cent will offer business a chance to regroup and invest in future growth.

The bad numbers from the past few months will flow from the statisticians for a while yet. We'll hear increasing calls for a further cut to interest rates.

But don't bet on it. The outlook may not be as grim as it seems.

- NZ Herald

Liam Dann

Liam Dann is the business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann is the Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, overseeing all our business content in print and online. 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.

Read more by Liam Dann

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