From Davos to Brisbane - show me the money

Where is the global economy heading if the world’s biggest companies do not open their wallets and start spending?

I have spent the last month in Australasia, where Europe and the US are of less interest than what is happening in their backyard, like China, Singapore and Malaysia. They have an interesting view on the fragile nature of recovery.

Talking to one Aussie developer over a barbecue, when he finished gloating over the cricket, he talked about the recent meeting of the great and good in Davos and decried how he felt that we construction professionals operating in Europe don’t always see the big picture. By way of illustration he asked me to guess how many skyscrapers there were in Europe in 1990 – 21 was the answer – China had 10 at that time.

By 2012, he told me, Europe had 122 and China 937 – in 2014 even more. His point being that in 1990, while some of us might have been pre-occupied with the quarterly GDP figures at that time, few would have guessed at the strength, longevity and speed of the change of fortunes in China. Asia was the direction in which we should have been looking.

Whether the discussion is taking place over a financier’s fondue in Davos or a barbecue in Brisbane there needs to be a serious examination of where the money is going to come from.

Reading a report issued to coincide with the Davos enclave last month, he may have a point. The news from Deloitte showed the fact that global recovery is being stalled by a lack of investment not just from the financial institutions but also from the big players in the corporate world. These mainly US-based firms are the leviathans of the global economy and when they lead, others follow. If they sit on the cash, as now, it sends a poor message. Deloitte showed the polarisation between hoarders and spenders has reached unparalled levels.

The top five non-financial firms are now almost exclusively in IT or telecoms and are now sitting on gross cash holdings estimated to be over $387bn. To put that into perspective that is equivalent to the United Arab Emirates total GDP for 2013. These firms are not speculating to accumulate and are not putting their cash balances to work and that especially affects us in construction whether you operate in Sydney or Sheffield. This is a myopic approach that is detrimental to us all.

My Australian host also pointed to the fact that confidence in the UK economy has not been boosted by the actions of British banks or domestic developers. The investors making the headlines are developers from just four nations - China, Singapore, Malaysia and Qatar. These firms now have permission to build more than 33,000 homes in London alone. By way of example SP Seith the Malaysian investor was the first to pile into Battersea and fund 3,444 homes and Hong Kong billionaire Henry Cheng Karshun bought developers Quintain out of the Greenwhich Peninsular development in south east London where 10,000 homes are planned.

While the capital is a special example, other investment from outside the UK may well also start targeting other growing parts of the UK, especially with big infrastructure projects like HS2 linking North and South.

This is just as well since the cash is still not coming from the risk averse banks and now it seems it is not coming from the big international brands.

Drawing on my copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, I don’t want to come across as Marvin the Paranoid Android, one of the more depressed characters in the tome but my Antipodean friend may have had a point when he asks where the global economy is going if the big five do not open their wallets and start spending.

Whether the discussion is taking place over a financier’s fondue in Davos or Brisbane there needs to be a serious examination of where the money is going to come from to fuel the post-depression return to business growth. It is not going to happen on its own and surely there will come a point where we need to look for finance outside of Asia and the Arab Emirates if we are to continue pulling away from recession. Where from however, that is the question? As they may say in The Hitchhiker’s Guide perhaps the number “42” is the answer.

Richard Steer is Chairman of Gleeds Worldwide.

Opinion piece first published in Building on the 19th of February 2014



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