Bernard, on stuff and things

When I first started to read the business pages in the Dominion the editor was Bernard Hickey.

(As an aside, I’m often surprised by how people who read the business pages assume that everybody else does too. Anecdotally, that just isn’t the case. But, I wonder if there are any hard numbers to prove or disprove this?)

Later I briefly crossed paths with him during my time at Trade Me. He was then Head of Digital at Fairfax Media and was part of our advisory board.

He now works as the Managing Editor at and seems to be popping up as a commentator all over the place (good PR for the site, I suppose).

He also still runs a blog that I enjoy on

Lately the business and finance news has thrown up a number of great topics for him to get stuck into. Here are a few that have caught my eye over the last couple of months…

On why a capital gains tax is unlikely:

“Why wasn’t there more of a debate about the issues behind the serious [housing affordability] proposals?

My theory is that the New Zealanders who run the place haven’t really confronted and don’t want to confront the ugly truth. I’m talking about the generations who graduated in the 1970s and 1980s and who now run both central and local goverments, who run the media and who generally set the parameters in a national debate.

These are the generations who graduated without student loans into good jobs when a home loan cost less than 40% of after-tax pay to service. They bought houses before 2003 and are now sitting on massive capital gains. Many have become semi-professional landlords with fancy Loss Attributing Qualifying Companies that allow them to offset operational losses on their rental properties against their salaries to reduce their tax bills. They have become addicted to the tax free capital gains on these properties. They’ve started consuming some of those gains in the form of holidays, electronics, cars and boats financed through their mortgages.”

Helen’s lucky and selfish generation

On the meltdown on Wall St. and it’s implications for NZ:

“Put simply, panic and fear rule in the world’s financial capitals right now and it will cost us all in one way or another and sooner or later.

In previous periods any panic on financial markets affected us most directly through our stock market. When Wall St fell, that hit the New Zealand stock market. Back in 1986 we had a lot of money invested in stocks, proportionate to our total net worth. Reserve Bank figures showed that 50% of household net wealth was in financial assets in 1986, mostly in shares. The other 50% was in the value of our houses. So when Wall St sneezed we caught a cold fast.

The direct link is much more muted now. The most recent Reserve Bank figures show financial assets, again mostly shares, made up NZ$186 billion or just 31% of household net worth in 2006, whereas housing (minus housing debt) makes up $407 billion or 69% of household net worth. But that housing debt is now much more important than it used to be. Whereas in 1986 we had $65 billion worth of financial assets, we had over $150 billion of housing debt at the end of 2006.

What does that all mean? It means we care more now about interest rates and how they affect house prices than we do about share prices. But this global financial crisis is affecting both of these things too. It’s just not as direct and immediate as in previous crises. This global credit crunch has increased interest rates globally and that’s how this financial crisis is hitting us this time.”

What panic on Wall St means for us

On Fonterra’s decision to suspect their plans to float part of the company:

“This decision shows that the most important single group of investors in New Zealand (the 11,000 farmers who own Fonterra) don’t have faith in the managers of Fonterra, don’t believe in our capital markets and don’t have the ambition to become a truly global company.

Just like so many investment decisions made by our mostly elderly investing classes, they are so obsessed with property valuations and their own searing experience of the 1987 stockmarket crash that they can’t bring themselves to take any risk associated with the equity markets and the professional managerial classes. Instead they are more than happy to take enormous risks with debt-fund investments in property they can walk on. It shows a lack of imagination and, frankly, intelligence.”

NZ investors addicted to medioricity

On the prospects for property prices:

“The property-owning generation who do know the famous line from Dad’s Army have been reciting it to each other and their real estate agent friends for a few months now.

“Don’t panic Captain Mainwaring (yes the spelling’s right, although it is pronounced Mannering),” they’ve been saying about the threat of falling house prices. It will never happen here, they say. We have never had big falls in prices before and it won’t happen this time, they say. We’ll have a period of relative stability and then we’ll be back up, up and away on our merry way. Sit tight, they say.

But they are wrong. The latest batch of statistics say they are wrong and any rational examination of housing affordability in this country shows they are wrong. Prices here are currently at least 30 per cent over-valued and it’s now a question of how much and how fast they fall rather than if they will fall.”

Don’t panic Captain Mainwaring, don’t panic