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What's in the stars?

Saturday 1st February 2003

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Aquarius: the water bearer

Those born under this sign are constantly searching for answers. And answers (and compensation) are what disgruntled owners of leaky homes will be seeking once the parliamentary select committee enquiry reports this month. It is likely to back last year's Hunn report recommendations for tighter building regulations. That will mean higher costs - an extra $6000 or more - for new homes.

Your ruling planet Uranus is known for change. That could include government fast-tracking the long-awaited Building Act review, reversing the light-handed approach to the sector and forcing the "see no evil, speak no evil" Building Industry Authority to be more active. It could also mean compulsory use of treated timber in some houses, compulsory builder registration and as many as a dozen new legal claims involving owners in multi-apartment complexes.

Will heads roll? Internal Affairs Minister George Hawkins is under heavy pressure due to his bad handling of the affair and it's tipped Building Industry Authority head Bill Porteous has agreed to go quietly.

While the leaky homes crisis has a huge financial impact on unlucky individuals, it is not dampening the overall buoyant housing market. Improved migration, Kiwis staying at home and rising incomes and employment will continue fuelling house sale volumes and prices for at least the next six months. Economists expect last year's median house price increase of around 8% nationwide to be matched this year. Stable interest rates and a lack of competition from other investment classes mean people are buying their first home or investment properties. High rental yields will also continue until mid-year when a flood of new construction comes on stream. Beware of houses advertised as "newly renovated" (patch-up job) or "situated by water" (rotting away).

Capricorn: the goat

Capricorn's ruling planet is Saturn, which in astrology represents obstacles, restrictions and discipline. Your export business will get plenty of those this year with the increasingly gloomy global economic outlook. International economic soothsayers have been gradually cutting their growth predictions for most countries (though not Australia) for 2003. Although the US doesn't look to be sinking back into recession this year, a quick rebound is also unlikely and US GDP growth will probably be around last year's 2.5%. Japan isn't looking like picking up any time soon, and neither is Europe. Even without a war with Iraq and oil prices at $US50 a barrel (in which case New Zealand companies should go into batten-the-hatches mode) a global pick-up could well be delayed until late this year or 2004. So far strong housing, good commodity prices, low interest rates and high levels of immigration have cushioned us from the worst of the recent global gloom, but we can't escape it forever and 2003 is likely to be the time of reckoning. But another Capricorn trait is being quick to seize an opportunity. BNZ's chief economist Tony Alexander is looking for a 2004 global upturn and says New Zealand companies should be concentrating more on making significant changes in their lives to take advantage of this, rather than moping about the present. Try these tactics:

  • Make your capital investments now. The talent shortage isn't temporary and will only get worse, so if you want to be well placed to handle an acceleration in world growth in 2004 you can't rely on simply employing more people. You will need to boost productivity, and that means investment in upgraded plant and technology. Be prepared to pay staff more, too.

  • But keep your revenue projections conservative as you look at capital expenditure. Things might still go horribly wrong.

  • Lock in some of your debt. Interest rates are low and if the world economy improves in the medium term, they will probably start going up. So think about locking in 30-40% of your debt at present fixed interest rates for the next two to four years.

  • Expect the Kiwi dollar to strengthen against most major currencies except the Australian this year. Exporters should be looking at extra hedges for this year, unless of course your receipts are in Australian dollars.

    Gemini: the twins

    The third constellation in the zodiac represents two heroic Greek brothers named Castor and Pollux - twins, according to many narratives, although it is hard to determine their actual parentage. It's the same, too, for Industry New Zealand and Trade New Zealand: once just siblings in the vast and growing governmental family, but now to be joined at the neck as part of father Jim Anderton's quest for empire building within the civil service. Gemini is the sign for the emotional and intuitive, the imaginative and creative. But the most likely outcome of this new political entity will be oodles of new logos, mastheads, corporate newsletters, reconfigured mission statements and precious little else.

    Leo: the lion

    The Lion is the king who dominates and is not afraid of challenge. And Education Minister Trevor Mallard's secret plan to put a cap on the number of revenue-earning international students allowed to study at New Zealand schools will be just that - a challenge. It's an announcement the fractious corner of the public service Mallard oversees isn't going to take lying down. Prepare for war.

    Libra: the scales

    As a Libran, you uphold balance and fair trading. So will the market watchdogs. Look out for a crackdown on insider trading, with a new continuous disclosure regime for listed companies and new requirements for disclosing share trading by directors and officers. Under beefed-up rules, the Securities Commission now has the power to take suspected insider traders to court on behalf of shareholders, rather than leave policing up to investors. The Stock Exchange is already referring on suspect trading and the commission, in turn, is keen to prove a point by nailing a few people this year (it investigated 11 insider trading cases last year without taking further action). The big change is that it now has a separate litigation fund, plus around $1 million extra in this year's budget for enforcement. Completing a review of insider trading laws this year is also on the government agenda.

    Small companies also come under the Libran spotlight this year, with new listing rules forcing at least two directors, or one third of the board, to be independent.

    Plus, companies abusing their substantial market power are likely to get their butts kicked by another government watchdog, the Commerce Commission, which is prioritising investigating anticompetitive practices.

    The commission also has a tough journey ahead in other spheres: making final determinations on a raft of telecommunication issues from access disputes to the costs of providing interconnection services, finally implementing the new electricity regulation regime by mid-year, starting a lengthy enquiry into gas regulation, keeping an eye on the dairy industry and a new role investigating dodgy practices in used car sales. Whew! It is also shining the lunar light on misleading advertising. Airlines and real estate agencies have felt the heat so far; expect food advertising to come under scrutiny in the next six months. Is your product really 93% fat-free? It had better be.

    Pisces: the fish

    The public sector dreamers of the zodiac. The heavens are looking propitious for the government as the year begins. The economy is buoyant and Helen Clark continues to enjoy a dream run in the polls. But as the year progresses, the planets will move into less favourable orbits that may challenge even Miss Clark's formidable management skills.

    In its first term, Labour was bent on putting the old bogey of union influence behind it and establishing its "new Labour" credentials à la Tony Blair. That called for a delicate balancing act: keeping faith with the Council of Trade Unions on the one hand (Employment Relations Act, paid parental leave and so on) while taking care not to burn off the wealth-creating business sector on the other.

    Now, as Labour settles into its second term with a caucus room stacked with former union officials, expect cabinet to be under intense pressure to push through a raft of new employment laws (some of them reappearing on the agenda after being beaten back by ministers last time) that will be seen as stifling to investment and thus hostile to business. Don't expect much let-up in the public sector wage demands, either, though Clark and her lieutenants will be trying to keep the lid on.

    And what do the stars hold for embattled National Party leader Bill English? When a planet is at the lowest point of its orbit, it can go only one way: up. People who write English off on the basis of his abysmal poll showing forget another former opposition leader who also languished in the twilight zone of the opinion ratings back in the mid-1990s. Her name was Helen Clark.

    Sagittarius: the archer

    There is cause for optimism on the world sporting stage. As the sun moves into their sector, the All Blacks are always open to fresh ideas. With Anton Oliver back in charge they will produce good results in abundance, beating Australia and France to win the World Cup, while England will disappoint again.

    It will be a time for farewells to old friends. Jonah Lomu will pack his kidneys and head to England. Keeping him company will be Christian Cullen and Taine Randell. Past ecstasies will also be recycled during the America's Cup, where Team New Zealand, so ambitious and determined, will ride with the champion ethic and be too good for the best of the rest.

    Look for new names to make their reputations. Shotputter Valerie Adams will shock at the world athletics championships and golfer Eddie Lee will be an unstoppable force in the professional world. Some unfortunate alignments will mean it won't be a year of unbridled joy, though. The Warriors will struggle to repeat the excitement of a Grand Final appearance in 2002. Without a reliable kicker, regrets will surface and the team will look across the Tasman and wonder why they let Ivan Cleary go.

    The planets stir up a further tremor for the cricketers and netballers. Anna Rowberry's netballers will disappoint at the world championships, losing again in a heartbreaking final to Australia, while the cricketers will find the competition in South Africa too hot. If only Chris Cairns were fully fit.

    Scorpio: the scorpion

    Scorpio's ruling planet is Pluto, responsible for the beginnings and, in particular, the ends of life phases. Several political figures will feel the sting this year.

    National Party "strategist" Murray McCully will clamber for dry ground after renewed tensions between his office and the Albany electorate over unpaid levies. And National deputy leader Roger Sowry will successfully head off a challenge for his position by Richard Worth, but emerge looking the worse for wear.

    Progressive Coalition leader Jim Anderton will be buoyed by the acquisition of former Dow Jones bureau chief Chris Ritchie as an economic adviser, but will still fail to regain the popular traction of yore.

    In the wake of the end to her self-proclaimed "incredibly benign strategic environment", Prime Minister Helen Clark could see the lustre coming off her once vaunted media management skills in the international realm.

    Green MP Sue Kedgley's bourgeois taste in 3-litre motor vehicles, private family yachts and mansions overlooking Oriental Bay will sap away at her party's efforts to establish itself as a revolutionary-minded faction. Richard Prebble will enjoy the old Act party's new name but will find no corresponding jump in his own popularity. Murmurs about Deborah Coddington as a possible replacement will continue to gather strength.

    Taurus: the bull

    One look at the sharemarket is enough to confirm it's a Taurus - materialistic, easily excited and nervous about change. Though the market's not one to be told what to do, its close friends at the Stock Exchange are keen to nudge share prices higher in 2003.

    Working in the exchange's favour will be a flurry of popular listings in 2003, expected to include the likes of Vector, the NZSE itself and Turners and Growers. The latter may be particularly well received as it offers a rare chance to invest at the value-added end of agribusiness. Low interest rates and a possible pick-up in the US economy could also kick things along.

    At the very least the floats will distract attention from possible dark omens, including a slowdown in earnings growth by listed companies due to the rising dollar and weaker domestic growth.

    Resident astrologers at some sharebroking firms are also asking if the NZSE40's two-year dream run can stretch through 2003. In Kiwi dollar terms, the benchmark index has outperformed the Dow Jones by about 40% since 2000 and beaten the Nikkei by 50%. But all good things must come to an end and there's a very real chance overseas markets will overtake ours this year.

    Either way we're in for a bumpy ride. New Stock Exchange rules obliging companies to continuously disclose important information - rather than filtering it through analysts as they used to - will make prices much more volatile for the foreseeable future.

    As for the exchange itself, expect boss Mark Weldon to come up with more rejuvenation ideas. Some, like his drive for more listings, will be universally welcomed. Others might tread on the toes of the sharebroking community, particularly if they threaten brokers' ability to make money. But then Taurus isn't afraid of breaking a few fingernails.

    Virgo: the virgin

    Ruled by the planet Mercury, those born under this earth sign are flexible and astute business people. They will need to be adaptable to deal with the tumultuous scandals ahead this year. Who would have thought The Orifice, a reality TV show secretly filmed in Air New Zealand's public relations department, would be an international hit and save the company? Fish-lover Ross Armstrong will also a be a hit when he becomes our own Jamie Oliver - he and glamorous maître'd Julie White will open a bistro on Jervois Road (site of the next Eric Watson restaurant stoush - you don't need to be a psychic to know he will take out Matthew Ridge). Stephen Tindall has the most successful IPO of the year when he lists his chain of brothels (The Whorehouse). Unlimited gets the scoop of the year when it reveals an Alan Bollard wall hanging was not personally sewn by the elegant paws of the Reserve Bank governor ("Tapestrygate"). Maori Television Service becomes our very own Enron.

    Contributors: David Cohen, Karl du Fresne, Deborah Hill Cone, Nikki Mandow, Frances Martin, Joseph Romanos, Fiona Rotherham

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