Shockproof sharemarket

Shocks, even really shocking shocks, the New Zealand sharemarket can handle. Long-term trends, however, are another matter.

From the start of the year, the market was up a frothy 20 per cent by the time the S&P/NZX50 index hit its peak in September, driven largely by investors chasing yields as interest rates stayed in the doldrums. The worldwide hunt for yield saw foreign ownership of the local market reach 36.3 per cent - its highest point since 2011, said investment specialists JBWere.

Since the peak, as fixed-interest yields have begun showing signs of new life, the local market has given away more than half those early gains. The index is now up by a still-solid, but not so spectacular 7.5 per cent since the year began.

Along the way, share traders shrugged off all the shocks the year could deliver. Britain's June Brexit vote put a dent in prices, but after just five trading days it was far in the distance. The ultimate shock, Donald Trump's election victory, took a little longer to digest, but even that was erased from share prices after a fortnight. And the Kaikoura quake? Not even the faintest tremor as far as share prices were concerned.

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Dairy bounces back

After two miserable seasons, dairy farmers were this year given hope that they might finally be able to dig themselves out of the effluent.

The regular GlobalDairyTrade auction has now delivered four significant price rises in a row, and Fonterra farmers can look forward to a total 2016-17 payout of $6.50-$6.60 a kg of milksolids, before retentions, a huge leap from $4.30 in 2015-16. Other dairy processors are expecting payouts in much the same territory.

It's not quite a return to the glory days - that would be Fonterra's $8.50/kg in 2013-14 - but it's well ahead of DairyNZ's estimate of $5.05/kg that the average farmer needs to break even.

It isn't all good: soggy spring weather depressed production and the Reserve Bank doesn't like dairy's debt mountain - $39 billion, as farmers borrowed more to get through the lean years. But while it will take a couple of good seasons to repair the damage done, at least things are looking up.

Chris Lewis, president of Federated Farmers Waikato, offered a suitably wary response in November: "We are at a stage where we are almost starting to believe it," he said.

The price rise is not quite a return to the glory days, but it's well ahead of DairyNZ's estimate of $5.05/kg that the average farmer needs to break even. Photo / John Stone
The price rise is not quite a return to the glory days, but it's well ahead of DairyNZ's estimate of $5.05/kg that the average farmer needs to break even. Photo / John Stone

A pumpkin implodes

After a long struggle, 26-year-old kids' clothing chain Pumpkin Patch is tipped into receivership by its lenders in October.

A month later, with no white knight galloping over the horizon to buy the business, the administrators decide to close the doors for good, leaving some 1400 staff out of a job. "Unfortunately, while the brand is attractive the business itself ultimately grew no interest," says administrator Brendon Gibson.

Launched in 1990 and listed on the sharemarket in 2004, Pumpkin Patch soon became the darling of investors and shoppers alike. By 2007 its sharemarket value hit $830 million and Pumpkin Patch seemed unstoppable, expanding rapidly through New Zealand and into Australia, Britain and the United States.

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But in the end, the company was weighed down by debt and couldn't defend its market niche against growing competition.

Last year Pumpkin Patch spurned a number of parties interested in buying the business, saying their offers weren't compelling enough to consider seriously. Instead, the retailer tried to lift performance with a four-year turnaround programme, which ultimately failed to deliver.

When did it all go wrong? A long time ago, reckoned former board member, major shareholder and retail legend Rod Duke. "I went on to that board two years ago - and I think the issues go back way further than that."

Rates take a turn

If time reveals one key turning point in 2016, it could be the one that ended the slide in interest rates.

From 2008, when New Zealand's official cash rate was 8.25 per cent, it's been a long way down - with a couple of blips - to the Reserve Bank's latest cut in November, to just 1.75 per cent.

Now, there is a widespread view that the central bank's cutting days are over. And even if the official cash rate stays put, market rates look likely to rise, thanks to events abroad.

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Overseas rates were heading up even before Donald Trump's victory. Now, the impending Trump presidency has added to the upward momentum, thanks to his promise to spend more on infrastructure while cutting taxes, which means more borrowing, which means ... higher rates. The US Federal Reserve's decision yesterday to raise rates is another sign of the trend.

Whether you're a Kiwi heading abroad, or a tour operator counting overseas visitors, these are tourism's best of times. Photo / Dean Purcell
Whether you're a Kiwi heading abroad, or a tour operator counting overseas visitors, these are tourism's best of times. Photo / Dean Purcell

Given that New Zealand's big banks have more than $90 billion borrowed overseas, and are finding it harder to attract money from local savers, higher rates offshore are likely to mean higher rates here too.

Or, as Westpac put it: "if the constraints on funding persist, this will likely manifest as some combination of higher interest rates and tighter lending standards."
Rates for some fixed term mortgages have already risen in recent weeks.

Travel's golden age

Whether you're a Kiwi heading abroad, or a tour operator counting overseas visitors, these are tourism's best of times.

In the year to October, 3.42 million overseas visitors arrived in New Zealand, an increase of 358,100 or 12 per cent on the previous 12 months. In the same period, New Zealand residents left for 2.55 million overseas trips, 7 per cent more than in the October 2015 year.

Earlier numbers - for the year to March - put spending by overseas tourists at $14.5 billion, and domestic travel spending at $20.2b.

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The boom is being driven by more airlines flying to New Zealand, existing carriers putting on more flights, more efficient planes and low fuel prices - all meaning cheaper fares.
Discounted flights to the US, for example, have been as low as $900 return, $599 one-way.

Adjusted for inflation, some fares now cost a quarter as much as they did a generation ago.

If the industry has a problem now, it's infrastructure.

This month, four key tourism leaders called on the Government to introduce a bed tax and lift the border levy by $5 to improve facilities for tourists.

They want a $130 million annual fund - half funded by the Government - to meet infrastructure problems, particularly for smaller regional centres.

Green shoots

It's one of the country's lower-profile industries, but horticulture has been an export star this year.

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Apple growers, for example, are on track to produce their biggest-ever export crop in the season that is just starting, says Pipfruit NZ - 21.5 million cartons worth $800 million.
If that is achieved, the export tally will be comfortably more than double the $341m worth of apples exported in 2012.

It's one of the country's lower-profile industries, but horticulture has been an export star this year. Photo / Glenn Taylor
It's one of the country's lower-profile industries, but horticulture has been an export star this year. Photo / Glenn Taylor

The area planted in apples is forecast to reach 11,000ha by 2020, from 9625ha this year.
While the apple industry is aiming for $1b in exports by 2022, Pipfruit NZ chief executive Alan Pollard says it is well on track to hit the target before then.

Kiwifruit, meanwhile, has been bouncing back from the Psa disaster. Marketing company Zespri says 2015-16 sales revenue was $1.9b, up 22 per cent from the previous season.
"We're on track to more than double sales revenue from nearly $2b last season to $4.5b by 2025," Zespri chief operating office Simon Limmer said last month.

The sun has also been shining on winemakers. In the year to June 30, the value of NZ wine exports rose by 10 per cent to almost $1.6b, say figures from Winemakers NZ, and the industry is aiming for $2b by 2020.

Unreal estate

Finally, was that the sound of a rampant housing market beginning to turn?

It would be a brave observer who declared Auckland property prices had done their dash, but there were hints as recently as this week.

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On Monday, the Real Estate Institute (REINZ) said Auckland prices, seasonally adjusted, had fallen 4 per cent between October and November - though they were still 11 per cent higher than in November 2015.

Agency Barfoot & Thompson said the Auckland market had "turned" and there were signs of price rises slowing.

If there was a slowdown, it was largely an Auckland story: the REINZ figures showed median sale prices set records in 10 out of 12 regions last month.

The Reserve Bank also believes Auckland house price inflation has softened lately, though it isn't making any bets about whether that will last. And whatever lies ahead, the bank notes that compared to incomes, Auckland houses prices are among the highest in the world.

During the year, the central bank continued its efforts to push back against soaring property prices, further tightening its loan-to-value ratios in October, to tighten the lending limits on investment property and on owner-occupied homes outside Auckland.

That may not be the end of the battle between the bank and house prices. The Reserve Bank has also asked the Minister of Finance to allow it to add debt-to-income limits to its arsenal, if house prices refuse to come to heel.

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Taxing ghost profits

This was the year that tax avoidance by multinational companies moved out of the shadows.

In March, a Herald investigation looked at more than 100 multinationals with NZ operations and found most report much lower profit levels in this country than their parent companies do in other, lower-tax jurisdictions. Twenty of those companies collectively paid just $1.8 million in tax, despite almost $10 billion in annual sales to Kiwi consumers.

The revelations struck a chord. Spark boss Simon Moutter said some businesses were "profit-shifting and stripping a lot of value out of the country and not leaving much behind." Then-Prime Minister John Key said the tax being paid by some multinationals, "feels too low to me". And two-thirds of those answering the Herald's Mood of the Boardroom survey thought the issue was a problem for New Zealand's tax base.

Only 16 per cent thought the Government was making progress
in addressing the issue.

This month, the Government revealed it plans to take action. Proposals include giving IRD greater information-gathering powers, shifting the burden of proof to multinational companies in disputes on transfer pricing, and tightening loopholes that allow companies to claim they have no taxable presence in New Zealand.

"It's a shift in policy, and I don't think it's subtle. It's a reasonable shift," said PwC tax leader Geof Nightingale.

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