Liam Dann 's Opinion

Business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann: US rebound brings new problems

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Market volatility a sign of what to expect as American economy heads towards resumption of normal service.
The Japanese stock market plunged 6 per cent in morning trading last Thursday - it closed down 5 per cent. Photo / AP
The Japanese stock market plunged 6 per cent in morning trading last Thursday - it closed down 5 per cent. Photo / AP

It is becoming clear that the resumption of normal service in the United States economy won't be painless for New Zealanders.

Markets have been highly volatile in the past few weeks as anticipation has grown that the US Federal Reserve may announce a time-frame for returning to normal monetary policy - by raising the official cash rate above zero and ceasing to print money.

Markets in Asia and other emerging economies have borne the brunt of the shift in outlook as international traders shift money back to the US. That includes us.

The Japanese stock market plunged 6 per cent in morning trading last Thursday - it closed down 5 per cent. China's Shanghai exchange closed down more than 3 per cent on the same day.

Both bounced back on Friday, but we haven't seen that sort of extreme volatility since the bad old days of the global financial crisis.

In New Zealand the NZX 50 has slipped steadily from a record peak on May 13.

It hasn't exactly been great timing for the Government's newly listed Mighty River Power, which has lost about 10 per cent of its value since it floated.

The Kiwi dollar has also fallen sharply, along with most other so-called "hot" currencies such as the Aussie dollar and Brazilian real.

That's not such a bad thing, given the pressure our exporters have been under for the past few years with the kiwi riding high above US80c. But for most New Zealanders a falling dollar has an immediate negative impact as the cost of imported goods - including petrol - rises.

In short, if the correction is too far too fast it is going to hit people in the pocket long before an export-led recovery can offer any compensation by way of job creation and rising wages.

The US Federal Reserve policymakers meet on Tuesday and Wednesday this week and world markets will be hanging on every word that follows from Fed governor Ben Bernanke.

There is every chance Bernanke will look to cool expectations that the US is nearing an end to the stimulus that has been maintaining it since the GFC.

The volatility we've been seeing was initially sparked by off-hand comments Bernanke made in May, suggesting the Fed's bond purchasing (often described as money printing ) might tail off soon.

There is no doubt the end is approaching although it could still be another 18 months to two years before it becomes a reality. Markets have a habit of getting ahead of the curve in terms of anticipating policy shifts. The US is in better shape than it was but it is still not firing on all cylinders.

An International Monetary Fund report released at the weekend made this point. The IMF noted fundamentals gradually improving. Home prices and construction activity are rising, household finances are stronger and jobs are being created.

But US government spending cuts are still a drag on the economy. The IMF is picking GDP growth of just 1.9 per cent this year and latest manufacturing data wasn't too flash.

Rather like New Zealand, it is the news of a rebound in the housing market that is putting some pressure on the Federal Reserve to start moving. But with large chunks of the US economy still stalled, that pressure isn't nearly so intense as it is here.

Still, what we've seen from financial markets in the past month is a real taster of what we are in for in the next couple of years as we head towards resumption of normal service in the US economy.

The Federal Reserve is going to have to start talking about timing soon and every time it does so we are likely to see a reaction from global markets.

The process will be managed masterfully and we'll see markets let off a little steam every few months until the end of US stimulus is priced in. Yeah Right (Tui can have that one free).

Based on the usual behaviour even the best efforts of Bernanke and the Federal Reserve are likely to provoke panicked reactions and that could mean some hair-raising days ahead on Asian markets and in Australia and New Zealand.

Market conniptions aside, the return to more normal policy in the US will change the dynamic for consumers in New Zealand.

The cost of borrowing is going to rise. As pressure comes off the Kiwi dollar so it will come off the Reserve Bank and governor Graeme Wheeler will have more room to raise the official cash rate.

We will see things rebalancing in ways most economists agree are good for our long-term future. But you can't eat positive economic data. Until we see an export-led recovery translating into improved job options and higher wages, an improving economy just means higher inflation and higher mortgage rates.

That could be a problem for the Government heading into an election next year and could give the Opposition a chance to make inroads even as the economy heads broadly in the right direction.

On Twitter @liamdann

- 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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