Liam Dann on business
Business editor of the New Zealand Herald, Liam Dann, discusses New Zealand and international financial matters

Liam Dann: Kiwi offers sanctuary from debt-crisis fear

In case of a zombie apocalypse, buy New Zealand dollars. Currency traders seem to see the kiwi as a safe bet in troubled times. Photo / Oliver Upton
In case of a zombie apocalypse, buy New Zealand dollars. Currency traders seem to see the kiwi as a safe bet in troubled times. Photo / Oliver Upton

New Zealand has always been a survival nut's fantasy island, isolated as it is from the hot spots of a full-scale nuclear war and the contagions of a zombie apocalypse.

This week, with the threat of financial meltdown impending on both sides of the Atlantic, currency markets jumped on board the survivalist band wagon.

Clearly things that make New Zealand richer and therefore deserving of a more valuable dollar took a turn for the worse.

Dairy prices continued to fall and tourism numbers slumped. But the dollar soared to new heights as it has done relentlessly in the month since the latest round of global debt concerns took hold.

It topped US86c yesterday and currency analysts are no longer laughing off the idea that it might hit parity with the greenback.

The dollar has already spiked by US14c since May so if these global trends continue for the next two months anything is possible.

However the rally on the kiwi appears to be well and truly detached from what currency analysts call "fundamentals" but the rest of us just call "common sense".

For the past week you could take your pick of debt crises. Okay, odds are we'll see a resolution to both the European and American situations in the short term.

In Europe they are already trumpeting a big fix for Greece in a deal which will see private investors share the load by swapping maturing short-term debt for long-term bonds.

And in the US there is no doubt that there is a large dose of political brinkmanship underpinning the risk that the world's biggest economy will default on its debt.

The Republicans want President Barack Obama to cut the deficit harder, partly because that's what they'd do, but also because that would slow the economic recovery which would hurt Obama's chances in next year's elections.

But no one wins if the US defaults.

The US economy might be down but it is still No 1 in the world. The greenback is still the default currency and if the US suffers we all do.

A default would see the cost of borrowing spike, taking money out of consumers' pockets. Likely the US would go back into recession and the rest of the world would follow.

Is New Zealand prepared for another credit crunch of Lehman Bros proportions? Probably not.

The economy is rebalancing but it remains in a highly vulnerable position with regards to debt levels - particularly in the wake of the Christchurch quake.

And with the official cash rate already back at 2.5 per cent there is far less scope for the Reserve Bank to take emergency action as it did in slashing rates post-Lehman.

If you had to pick your apocalypse then - from where we are sitting - the European variety would be infinitely preferable.

New Zealand is far less exposed to Europe than it once was and a global slow-down emanating out of that region is likely to have less of a severe impact on our commodity prices.

It is ironic that as of yesterday the markets were trumpeting success in Europe while the US remained uncertain. In reality the European situation remains far more precarious. Having thrown everything and the kitchen sink at Greece to halt the contagion, it had better work.

Another lurch towards debt default from Spain or Italy at this point would reveal how bare the EU cupboards are. The capacity to keep coughing up for its ailing nations is reaching its limit.

So too is the political good will of those European nations that have money - mainly Germany - to keep giving.

That the prospect of another banking collapse - another Lehman Bros credit-crunch style apocalypse - still haunts the world is a reminder of just how much the boom times of the last decade were a mirage unrelated to real wealth creation.

For nations as for individuals there are only two ways out of debt - spend less or earn more. Some three years into the global economic malaise the world's leaders have failed to tackle boldly either approach.

- NZ Herald

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