Australia top area of concern for NZ CEOs

THE state of New Zealand's largest export market tops the list of chief executives' international concerns.

As Australia finds itself on the downhill side of the largest mining investment boom in 100 years, its growth rate has slowed to the sort of pace ours has risen to - 2.5 per cent per annum. It is glum.

The question for New Zealand firms selling to or invested in Australia is whether it can pull off a smooth baton change from the resources sector to residential and non-mining business investment as drivers of growth.

Reserve Bank of Australia governor Glenn Stevens doesn't see why not, pointing in a recent speech to the lowest interest rates in 50 years, a falling exchange rate and a recent record of successful "handovers" - from private to public demand in 2009, then to mining investment subsequently.

Europe, mired in recession and still struggling to sort out its banking system, is seen as the second darkest cloud on the global horizon. The International Monetary Fund has just downgraded the euro area's growth outlook for this year and next year, at the same time that global bond yields are being led higher by the US Federal Reserve.

For the heavily indebted governments of southern Europe that is a toxic combination. "We fully expect another bout of Europe-led economic malaise to appear over the coming year," says ANZ chief economist Cameron Bagrie.

The risk of renewed global recession ranked third among business leaders' international worries.

The IMF, when it revised its world economic outlook two weeks ago, forecast global growth to remain subdued at just above 3 per this year, the same as in 2012, before rising to 3.8 per cent next year, which would still be slightly weaker than a less-than-riproaring 2011. It is softer than the IMF expected three months ago, reflecting slower growth in China and other key emerging market economies and a more protracted recession in the euro area. Its forecasts for trade volumes, both in goods and services, have also been scaled back.

China's slowdown is close to front of mind among the survey respondents reflecting its importance as a trading partner both for us and Australia, and its influence on global commodity prices.

Though 7.5 per cent growth is soft by Chinese standards, observers like AMP Capital's chief economist Bevan Graham welcome the evidence of rebalancing away from growth top-heavy in investment spending towards consumption. "China is moving to a structurally lower level of growth. However, with the right reforms in place that lower growth should prove more sustainable."

The survey also reflects the fact that the strength and volatility of the exchange rate remains a headwind - sometimes gale force - for exporters.

In the middle of last year the International Monetary Fund suggested the New Zealand dollar was overvalued by between 10 and 20 per cent. It is 4 per cent higher now.

The strength of the exchange rate has kept inflation below the bottom of the Reserve Bank's 1 to 3 per cent target band for the past year.

That is one horn of governor Graeme Wheeler's dilemma. Mortgage rates at 50-year lows stoking house price inflation, especially in Auckland, is the other.

If he cuts the official cash rate he might take some pressure off the dollar, but he risks throwing fuel on the fire of the housing market and increasing the threat to financial stability.

Conversely if he raises the OCR he risks undermining, even reversing, the currency's recent decline.

The third option, which he is pursuing, is to leave the OCR on hold, line up regulatory curbs on mortgage lending and wait for the US Federal Reserve to signal the end of quantitative easing.

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