Liam Dann 's Opinion

Business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann: Another year over, better to come

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Let's hope 2013 is a good one, without any fear, for companies involved in the New Zealand business sector.

John Lennon's jaded yet hopeful  Happy Christmas  lyrics are a cue to look ahead to more prosperous times. Photo / Supplied
John Lennon's jaded yet hopeful Happy Christmas lyrics are a cue to look ahead to more prosperous times. Photo / Supplied

And so this is Christmas, and what have you done?

Sorry about that. I just can't get the line out of my head and it is silly season, all right? As a young business reporter I once did the full Twas the Night Before Christmas as a year in review piece: "and Brierley was creeping" ... that sort of thing. Dreadful.

All Christmas songs become cliches because they are overplayed. But like lots of people I have a soft spot for John Lennon's Happy Christmas (War is over).

Those first couple of lines are fantastic - delivered so honestly, weary and jaded, yet hopeful.

So, New Zealand business what have you done?

This year I'm struggling to pick the highlights. Maybe I'm just getting old, it all starts to blur.

I'm sure it isn't because good things haven't happened. It is just that everything - for maybe the fourth year in a row - was clouded and dominated by this lousy economy.

Those GDP statistics for June and September quarters were really very ugly.

Basically, for half the year, we were close enough to zero growth to say the recovery had stalled.

China is trying to decide whether to grow at 8 per cent or 7.5 per cent next year. Our Government is trying to tell us that successive quarters of 0.3 and 0.2 per cent growth is "moderate".

To be fair, nobody - least of all Bill English - ever said that this was going to be an easy recovery. It was alway going to be lumpy and so it has proved.

But here's hoping for 2013 because there are signs of life out there, especially in the financial markets.

There is a new narrative around the corner. We are going to see a market recovery and it will be fascinating to watch it unfold. In fact, there are signs it has already begun.

It won't be a repeat of the last decade's boom, just as surely as it won't be a repeat of the 1980s or the 1920s.

And it won't dominate the more serious structural problems the economy has to work through - not for a while yet.

Next year there'll still be enough lousy data to keep the doomsayers happy.

History suggests that unemployment is usually the last statistic to come right.

There will still be companies retrenching and cutting costs because many businesses are still struggling with high debt levels and flat revenues.

It has been a long downturn and many are just holding on now.

As the revised numbers released last week showed, the downturn has been deeper and longer than we thought.

But when things turn they turn on finance market confidence.

That is where the change happens first ... as unfashionable though it might be to recognise that right now.

There is still a lot of anger out there about the role of banks and financial institutions in the global financial crisis. For better or for worse they will be leading the way once again.

Let's face it, there was no revolution.

Structurally the world has not changed that much since 2007 although some improvements have been made.

The regulations around the investment sector have been tightened and are already helping bring some investor confidence back.

The Government - starting with Labour's Lianne Dalziel and then National's Simon Power - has recognised the need for a better regime.

The Capital Markets taskforce led by Rob Cameron was a great success. It has had many of its biggest recommendations implemented. The NZX has also changed guard and, building on some solid groundwork, it has a renewed buzz.

This year companies such as Xero, Diligent and BurgerFuel are making people take notice of the local stock market again.

The 2012 returns for these companies are staggering - BurgerFuel up 201 per cent, Diligent up 186 per cent and Xero up 176 per cent.

Even previously struggling retailers such as Pumpkin Patch have been rewarded for getting the online strategy right - up 110 per cent. Overall the NZX 50 Index is up about 25 per cent for the year.

That strong growth has almost made up for the delay and market disappointment around Mighty River.

Obviously those small high-flying stocks can't match the sheer weight of a big listing like the state-owned power company.

But hey, Fonterra's new $500 million listed fund can... in a weird and complicated "it's basically a share without the voting rights" kind of way.

There are other signs of life out there too. The US economy is looking better than it has for a long time. Fiscal cliff aside, we are going to have to be ready to deal with a more resurgent America because it will present a new set of challenges.

If the greenback makes a comeback the kiwi dollar will fall.

Exporters will cheer but consumers we'll have to pay more for imports - petrol for starters. Ouch!

And we should be ready for China to respond to a US recovery. The Asian giant has a vast capacity to stimulate economic activity if its rulers decide it should.

If those two super powers create renewed demand in the world economy there will be upside for our exporters but there is an inflation risk.

We need to keep working hard to pay down debt because when the tide turns interest rates won't stay at record lows.

But we're getting ahead of ourselves.

The Reserve Bank has interest rates on track to be unmoved for all of 2013. The bank might change tack of course.

But there is little doubt this slow recovery will afford us more time yet to get our accounts in order.

This year was a tough one but without the drama of the initial post-GFC panic.

That's okay. Year-in-review articles are over-rated anyway. Here's to looking forward. So, a very Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Let's hope it's a good one.

- NZ Herald

Liam Dann

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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