In 1987 I did not care about the stock market crash. I don't recall where I was when it happened.

By late October I probably should have been studying for School Certificate exams. Although I might have been headed for South Brighton beach in a car stacked with surf boards, full of bogan mates blasting AC/DC's Back in Black at the world.

It was a Tuesday, after all.

Either way I was oblivious - thankfully - to the seismic shift about to rip through the economy.


It would shape my world as I came of age.

On October 20, 1987, the local sharemarket followed Wall Street and slumped sharply amid widespread panic and confusion.

The wave of national exuberance and confidence that followed the election of the Labour Government in 1984 crashed with it.

The crash hit New Zealand harder than anywhere else in the world. Not just on the market, although our share index did fall further and for longer than Wall Street. By February 1988 almost 60 per cent of its value had been destroyed.

But economically we were caught out, exposed and unprepared, halfway through a programme of free-market deregulation.

In the US, UK and Australia the boom did not stop. In the five years that followed the crash New Zealand went into recession twice and GDP growth never rose above one per cent.

Unemployment spiked from about four per cent to 11 per cent by 1991.

The Reserve Bank did not come to the economy's rescue as it did after the global financial crisis in 2008.


Floating mortgage rates were above 20 per cent in October 1987. By February 1988 they were still above 18 per cent, they remained above 15 per cent until August 1989.

Annual inflation had been running at about 18 per cent before the crash. It slumped to a relatively low 5.5 per cent by October 1988.

Those with a lot of debt after the crash were financially crippled trying to cover payments as jobs were lost, wage growth stalled and business and consumer confidence dried up.

The currency didn't come to the rescue, either. It rose, putting more pressure on agricultural exporters at a time when they were still struggling with the removal of tariffs and subsidies - and we were a lot more reliant on them.

The housing market stalled - it didn't crash - but there were mortgagee sales and loans were defaulted on.

Local banks struggled. By 1990 the Bank of New Zealand was close to collapse. It was bailed out by Jim Bolger's new National Government days after it came to power.

Meanwhile, economic reform continued at pace under Labour and National - with a brutal new austerity added to the mix.

I avoided unemployment queues by heading to university. But I copped Labour's new user-pays regime in my first year. In 1991 I watched Ruth Richardson deliver the mother of all Budgets - removing student allowances and ushering in the student loans scheme.

I finished paying mine off 10 years later.

For generations ahead of me the impact was worse. Many of those who'd been enticed directly in to the market lost their life savings.

The verdict is still out on what caused the crash. A long bull run pushed many markets into overheated territory.

But the catalyst in October is not obvious.

It seems driven more by precarious market conditions than any external event.
So could it happen again?

As shares climb to daily records and the current bull run extends to its ninth year, it would be foolish to think markets are immune.

But it is hard to imagine how the economic and social damage could be as severe as it was then.

In 1987 insider trading was still legal and there was no continuous disclosure regime for public companies.

Our share market was dominated by investment companies built on capital growth. It was a house of cards compared to today's NZX-50, dominated by dividend-delivering infrastructure companies.

People then invested directly with little or no research or support from institutions.

Our exposure now is through managed funds that hedge their bets with cash and bonds. They tailor products to your risk appetite under the watchful eye of the regulators.

To put it another way, New Zealand capital markets in 1987 were driving 180km/h with the top down on the BMW convertible, swigging Bollinger from the bottle. Investors were in the back seat and they weren't wearing seatbelts.

By comparison, the NZX-50 now is a late-model SUV with air bags and seat belts clicked.
It is only just starting to bump up against speed limits and already an annoying warning bleep is coming from the dashboard.

That SUV could still drive into a truck.

A Wall Street crash could still hit the NZX head-on and cause serious damage to investors - and our KiwiSaver accounts.

But the chances of a calamitous economic collapse being led by an equity crash are far lower.

Property may be another story.

The events of October 1987 pushed a generation of Kiwis away from shares and into the property market.

So perhaps the story of the crash and its aftermath in this country is not yet finished.