COMMENT:

I'm struggling with whether or not to buy a new suit.

In theory it's time to upgrade - new year and all that. But the old one isn't worn out and as far as I can see the styles haven't moved on.

In fact, when it comes to suits it feels like we're in a fashion vacuum.

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I got my first slim-fit suit back in 2009 on a work trip to London. It seemed very trendy and cool.

A decade on I can't see any discernible difference in the cuts. The only thing that's changed is my waistline, which limits the degree of skinniness I can comfortably pull-off.

Imagine striding out into the street in 1989 wearing a suit from 1979, or a suit from 1989 in 1999.

You'd have been a laughing stock in your flairs and wide lapels or shoulder pads and pleated pants.

Fashion trends moved quickly in the 20th century and were more rigidly adhered to.

Where am I going with this?

While I'd love to think I could pull off a whole business column about sartorial eloquence, the suit also makes a great metaphor. It's an allegory for the economic times.

As we head into another World Economic Forum in Davos, another round of warnings about debt levels and recession risks, what's really changed?

Like the skinny, hipster suits of our era, this low-inflation, low-interest rate cycle won't let up.

Eleven years since the global financial crisis, slow but steady economic growth seems entrenched around the world.

Crazy political upheavals in the US and UK haven't derailed it.

Central banks appear to have inflation beat but are locked into settings that look almost immovable.

Imagine applying the monetary policy settings of 1979 to the economy of 1989. Or the settings of 1989 to 1999.

New Zealand used to race through economic cycles as rapidly as it did suit styles. In the 20th century recessions came and went with unsettling frequency.

You'd think economic stability would make things highly predictable but it isn't that easy - as market volatility is showing us.

History is weighing too heavily on investors and market analysts.

Like the fashion cycle, we seem overdue for a major shift. The expectations of a market crash are palpable.

Fund managers – including the NZ Super Fund - have been nervously shuffling into "liquid assets", i.e. cash.

Treasury yield curves - a measure of longer-term economic confidence - are flattening and threatening to invert.

When returns for short-term (two-year) Treasury Notes go higher than returns for long term (10-year) notes it signals a deep pessimism about the economic outlook and is considered a good predictor of recession.

It looked like it was all on between October and December last year when US markets went within a whisker of bear market territory (a fall of 20 per cent of more).

And while it didn't make looking at my KiwiSaver account much fun, it almost felt like a relief to be getting on with it.

Then the US Federal Reserve – which had seemed determined to get interest rates back to pre-GFC norms – buckled and agreed to slow the pace of its hikes in 2019.

Markets have now rallied almost back to where the bull market left off last October.

So here we are, starting the year with no fresh clues on direction for the global economy.

Meanwhile, the big question remains unanswered – are we experiencing an unusually long cycle or has something fundamental changed about the way our economy works?

We are stuck in this no man's land between economic cycles.

Ideally, this could be a slow and orderly transition to a new economic cycle, without the spectacle of major financial crisis.

Perhaps 2019 will just be another year of transition.

Certainly there are powerful political forces in the US and China that would like to keep the plates spinning.

US President Donald Trump has plenty riding on maintaining growth until at least the election in November 2020. He hasn't been shy of putting pressure on the US Fed.

So what if nothing new happens? How do we handle all this stability?

A world where things never quite crash but never quite boom is fine for those who are already financially set.

In the end, the biggest factor driving this economic cycle may be demographics.

The baby-boom generation is an historically unprecedented phenomenon. It continues to define our age.

The world rocked through fashion cycles and economic instability as the boomers grew up.

Now, as they head into retirement, the weight of their savings and property investments is dictating a very different era.

What about those without assets, the young or disadvantaged? What about people waiting for wage growth to give them some financial security.

If things keep tracking as they have then we, and our politicians, will need to make some big calls about fairness in society.

New Zealand's coalition Government faces its biggest call yet when its Tax Working Group offers up a path for overhauling the tax system next month - probably with a tax on capital gains.

As we look for economic direction in 2019 it's hard to see past big political and cultural battles that are still to be decided - around the world and here at home.