NZ sharemarket should brace for turbulence

Worry guts and worry warts - dictionary definitions of people like me who always seem to have something to fret about - are in for a hectic time over the coming weeks as global investment markets seem set for turbulence.

It seems improbable the Kiwi sharemarket - where many shares have been having an exhilarating run - can remain aloof.

Lately the NZX has barely responded to major falls overseas - rather like in the 1970s when exchange controls made it largely immune to overseas shocks.

This time it has been underpinned by its relatively small size - comparatively few overseas investors now bother with our market, with the exception of heavyweight stocks like Fletcher Building due to its heavy exposure to Australia.

A factor in the 1987 crash was that overseas investors had sizeable stakes in many New Zealand companies.

They rushed to sell in what historically was a relatively minor and short-lived blip in international markets, though it had devastating consequences for many Kiwi shareholders.

The strong performance of the NZX has been further fuelled by nearly $2 billion becoming available from maturing fixed interest securities. People who might once have looked askance at shares are now prepared to risk their money, attracted by rising prices, some still reasonable dividend yields, and because many companies have low debt and seem to be performing well in challenging times. Steadily growing KiwiSaver funds are also actively investing in stocks.

So far, so good. However this benign-looking scenario seems under some threat as global political and economic tensions appear likely to rise ahead of potentially dangerous and uncertain developments in China, the United States and Europe.

Most of us last week closely followed the wonderful theatre of the US presidential elections: it was the best TV show for months, ending with an outcome that confounded most polls.

Comparatively little attention is being paid to another power struggle that could be even more important to New Zealand: the 18th party congress in China where a new generation of economic reformers are struggling to introduce major economic restructuring aimed at bringing millions to the much higher income levels of Japan, South Korea and Chile. This will be a tall order: overcoming massive corruption problems, inequality, civil unrest and a slowdown in exports to Western markets.

Bloomberg reports the reformers are battling entrenched interests, including the army, determined to maintain tight Communist Party control of banks and poorly performing nationalised key industries.

Stapleton Roy, a former US ambassador to China, told the London Financial Times the success of state-owned companies had created a "Frankenstein's monster" the party could not easily control. "Their monopoly position has allowed them to create vast monetary assets to back their own agenda: this is not dissimilar to the US."

Another concern is growing nationalism and the prospect of a flare-up with old enemy Japan over disputed islands in the South China Sea. China wouldn't be the first country whose new leaders might seek to gain popularity and distract attention from domestic problems with a spate of sabre rattling.

Obama's re-election removes one uncertainty for investors but it raises others.

The most immediate is the so-called "fiscal cliff" - a mix of tax rises and spending cuts. If an agreement can't be hammered out with a Republican Congress, it means the government finances will go "over the cliff" as soon as January, pitching the economy back into recession, which the Obama-Federal Reserve Bank actions have been narrowly averting.

The Congressional Budget Office said this would contract gross domestic product by 2.5 per cent next year and lift unemployment, which had been gradually improving, back over 10 per cent.

The Democrats are determined to end the tax cuts President George W Bush gave to people earning more than US $250,000 (NZ$307,000) a year.

Optimists believe the election, in which hawkish hardliners were defeated, will lead to a more accommodating Congress.

BBC economics editor Stephanie Flanders said the "smart money" was on Congress stepping back. She said the main conclusion from the election was that the US Federal Reserve Bank would opt for looser monetary policy for longer, and it expected Obama would appoint more doves to its board. So, more of the same.

It's hoped Obama will be more conciliatory with the Republicans than in his first term.

Kiwi investors should take positives from the result.

One myth - beloved by bigoted Republicans - is that Wall Street performs better under Republican control. This is wrong. James Mackintosh of the Financial Times pointed out that since Obama took office in January 2009, the US sharemarket had returned 92 per cent including dividends.

"Look back to 1927 and the pattern is repeated time after time.

"On average, the market gains more under the Democrats, even excluding the 1929 and 2008 crashes," he said.

Kiwi investors should take heart from this, especially as US data points to a slow recovery, which should benefit the global economy. Sadly, in Europe the continuing economic crisis is starting to impact on Germany, amid reports of further problems in Greece and eurozone banks.

If the Kiwi sharemarket does slip back, many will see the lower prices as a buying opportunity.

Fairfax Media