Govt change could impact market

HAMISH RUTHERFORD
Last updated 05:00 14/12/2013

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OPINION: A week ago, respected Goldman Sachs strategist Bernard Doyle warned clients to consider reducing the number of shares they held in New Zealand companies.

While Doyle had several concerns, next year's election – specifically the prospect of a change in government – was highlighted as one of the biggest risks for the markets. The difference between National and Labour-Greens was "material", with implications for the electricity industry and also the likes of casino operator SkyCity and construction giant Fletcher Building.

Combined, the risk of a vote for change could weigh on a quarter of the share market, Doyle warned. It was not a shrill caution, but a similar theme is likely to be repeated by others, and probably amplified, in election year.

Already the Government is warning investment will be stifled and jobs put at risk should Left wing money men David Parker and Russel Norman get their hands on the economy.

But should the market live in fear of a Labour-Green government? More importantly, would the "wealth creators" face more uncertainty than under third-term National?

In some quarters, the answer is clearly yes.

Fund managers who advised clients to put money into Mighty River Power, then Meridian Energy, will be anxious as election night approaches, with the shares already well below the initial price.

Those same managers, and their clients, might have other reasons to feel personally threatened.

The prospect of a more progressive income and capital gains tax will also be painful for Kiwis who collectively make New Zealand's private investment decisions. But the pain they feel in the wallet should not necessarily be confused with possible damage to corporate balance sheets, or even share prices.

As well as planning to restore contributions to the NZ Superannuation Fund, Labour wants compulsory KiwiSaver, with larger contributions, a move which would add to an already rising tide of investment capital.

KiwiSaver providers will be salivating. Right-wing blog Whale Oil described the policy as "Labour looking after its rich mates in the funds management industry" earlier this month, because of the inevitable boost in fees.

The risk is whether most of that money flows offshore rather than finding a home in local investments.

Chances are, money will not flow into electricity investment, where the Left is united on a fundamental overhaul of the wholesale market, likely to strip millions in profits from generators.

The reality is uncertain. Some in the sector are adamant that NZ Power, a state-run entity proposed to stand between generators and customers, will never be established. Senior Labour MPs are more focused on achieving the desired outcome (stable household power prices) than the perceived injustice, that public water is harnessed free of charge for massive private profit.

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For his part, Labour finance spokesman Parker remains adamant that the plan will be implemented. Either way, a signal has been sent to the industry that the best it can hope for is to deliver lower prices all by itself.

Give credit where it is due. Whatever the policies merits or motivation, the market has been clearly warned. The government of the day can generally get its way, then must live with the consequences.

Elsewhere, while Labour delivers endlessly negative rhetoric about "the big end of town", most of its policies seem less than draconian.

The announcement about NZ Power led to claims that it was only a small step from electricity reform to state control of supermarkets, prompting Labour to hastily say it had no plans for major reforms in other sectors.

Unless it promotes other major economic targets before, say, the end of March, it will likely face accusations of a breach of trust.

In some areas, that trust exists.

Amid recent talk that it would impose a moratorium on deep sea oil drilling, the industry was conspicuously quiet about the prospect, apparently reassured by the fact that those fronting the sector, David Shearer and Shane Jones, are open to the needs of investors.

More broadly, will the pledge of a minimum wage of $15 an hour risk jobs? Is it even a major promise? Perhaps in 2011 when it was first promised, but not if it is to be delivered in 2015.

A 2 per cent increase next year would take the minimum wage over $14. Another the following year would take it to $14.30, within 5 per cent of the promise, during a period when the economy is tipped to expand and inflation increase.

Will the Greens drag Labour into areas that will upset the market? The party's instinct might suggest yes, but the proof will be in the pudding. Being in government will be a learning experience. The Greens could be taught some lessons if ministers get much less latitude for antagonism to business than Opposition MPs.

In the first months of Helen Clark's premiership Labour took an antagonistic approach to the business sector. A standoff ensued, threats were implied, and her government turned. Corporate tax rates were lowered to keep pace with trends overseas. A free trade agreement was negotiated with China. The creation of Fonterra was allowed.

Parker earnestly recites that his party is, at its core, about creating work. "It's in our name".

Cast the prospect against the current administration.

National has managed to get the books back in order through difficult times, occasionally desperately difficult ones.

But the Government is struggling to claim to be even-handed despite a more hands-off spirit.

The auditor-general criticised the SkyCity convention centre deal after rival bidders were left in the dark about the unusual incentives that might be on available.

Within a few hours of a Commerce Commission ruling on copper broadband, Prime Minister John Key was signalling a possible legislative overrule. The independence of the competition regulator is arguably much closer to being sacrosanct than a hands-off electricity market.

Whoever ends up in charge, the market will hope that the result is decisive, giving stability to the programme, whatever it may be.

Only election night will answer this, but if National is the most popular that does not change the likelihood that it will still need a support party – and that is highly uncertain. Mr Key is doing what he can to improve the prospects of the Conservatives. But should he manage to find a majority with the help of his new friend on election night, the market will face a new question. Are stability and predictability qualities one associates with Colin Craig?


- Fairfax Media

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