Liam Dann 's Opinion

Business editor of the NZ Herald

Liam Dann: Cycle turns for wheeler-dealers

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The market is rising, confidence is back and sharp players have a spring in their step and a bullish look in the eye.

Graeme Hart may think it's time to plan an exit strategy.
Graeme Hart may think it's time to plan an exit strategy.

Watch closely. We are about to find out if we have learned anything from the financial crisis.

The stockmarket is on the rise - confidence is back, the wheelers and dealers have a spring in their step and a bullish look in the eye.

It has become apparent that we once again have a fertile environment for public listings and for capital raising.

Last year there were 10 new listings on the NZX. There are plenty more tipped for this year.

That's not a bad thing. In fact the buzz of activity comes as something of a relief after six years of financial crisis woes.

We're going to see plenty of companies coming to market, or attempting to, in this economic cycle.

While many of them may be great investment opportunities, history would suggest that some will not.

There is always the risk that when markets are booming they present an opportunity for sharp players to offload low quality businesses on the unsuspecting public.

Or simply to over-sell good ones.

How will we go at sorting the wheat from the chaff this time around? And perhaps more to the point, how will the market regulators go.

The NZX is already facing at least one controversial and politically charged decision as it ponders approval for the backdoor listing of the tech stock associated with a character who has already had more than enough attention from the media.

The tech space is a difficult proposition for New Zealand analysts because the epic valuations we're seeing globally suggest a new kind business model. But it is hard for those who aren't futurists to be sure about which companies will be able to convert to real profits.

Last week a valuation of US$7.3 billion ($8.4 billion) for a mobile games company that makes something called Candy Crush seemed pretty steep to me, but what would I know. I don't know much about the dynamics of the mobile app market.

As it turned out the market didn't like it either this time. The listing of London-based King Digital, which makes Candy Crush, was among the worst of the year in the US.

Shares closed down almost 16 per cent on day one of trading - they finished down nearly 20 per cent for the week. It might be a good company with a good future but this time the market hasn't bought the hype.

Hopefully the odd misfire like this will let some air out of what is increasingly looking like another tech bubble.

A tech wreck, like the crash of 2000-2001, would be disastrous for the global recovery at this point.

It seems too soon. But it is possible. The tech world still turns on its own terms often out of kilter with the traditional economy.

When things went to dot.custard at the turn of the decade, this part of the world was only a few years shy of the Asian financial crisis, which tipped New Zealand into recession in the late 1990s.

Back in the world of bricks and mortar things are hotting up too.

Last week's announcement that Hirepool (which looks to be a pretty solid proposition - depending on pricing) will be returning to market was a reminder that the big private equity players will also be applying some spit and polish to their assets.

Plenty of big deals were done in the years between 2002 and 2007. If the system is working we can expect to see some of them coming back to market, in better shape than when they left.

Private equity guys have a hardcore reputation forged in aggressive takeover plays and brutal rationalisations over the last few decades.

But they prefer to see themselves as agents of business efficiency - sort of the recycling merchants of the corporate world. The classic private equity target is a languid and bloated listed stock that sits on the market underperforming year after year.

By taking it private and away from the semi-democratic glare of shareholder votes and press scrutiny you can apply some rigorous discipline and get a business back in shape to start returning a decent yield.

That process often involves some hard calls, including staff cuts and asset sales.

One of the masters, Graeme Hart, once told me that his preferred method was to get rid of the top layer of management altogether and promote the hungry young up-and-comers who understood the business but were frustrated by the old regime.

Speaking of New Zealand's richest man, who hasn't really talked to the New Zealand press since he was selling Goodman Fielder 10 years ago, Hart and his Rank Group must also be starting to turn their attention to an exit strategy for some if not all of the huge Reynolds Group paper and packaging empire.

This business, like Hart's food empire before it, is a relatively unvolatile, low-margin proposition that tracks broadly up and down with basic economic cycles. It should start to perform quite well as economies in Europe and the US improve.

For a counter-cyclical, private equity trader that should make it a good time to think about selling.

If we are truly seeing the global economic cycle turn then Hart may have a few years up his sleeve yet.

We're not yet in the boom - we are on the cusp of it.

But we're going to see an increasing rush of activity on market as big investors position themselves for the change.

Hopefully the players involved - the regulators, the investment bankers, private equity groups - are wiser and more cautious this time around.

But, when markets start soaring, money talks. There are no guarantees.

- 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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