As the new trading year gets underway, business leaders across the world will be keeping a very tight lid on costs.
After fighting tooth and nail to hit 2009 targets CEOs are reluctant to call the end of the bad times until enough revenue arrives in 2010. Running a business can be an unforgiving job and whatever you achieved in a very tough market in 2009, this year is a clean slate. CEOs, like all of us, will now be judged on what they deliver this year.
With so much uncertainty about what happens next, bosses will do all they can to make sure costs are kept as low as possible for fear that they will miss all-important profit targets if the economy remains sluggish or worse.
The big question is at what point the business community as a whole will have booked enough sales to begin investing again. The risks facing the global economy as we start 2010 remain huge.
Government spending and debt is soaring in the developed world and the market is very worried about sovereign default. Lots of cheap money has been good for the banks and their trading desks, but this wall of money is still struggling to get to consumers and businesses as unemployment rose higher than 10 percent.
As a result, confidence remains weak and will remain so unless the year gets off to a good start.
But last year showed it can be an expensive business being too bearish. Since March, the equity market has rebounded very strongly as companies ripped out costs and on an aggregate basis beat expectations for profit despite falling revenue.
Emerging-market growth rebounded strongly and despite a few expectations the world’s major economies exited recession before the second half of the year.
Whether or not we get off to a good start to 2010 is crucial and investors should be looking closely at number of key indicators to judge whether we are heading for a sustained recovery or the dreaded double-dip recession.
The first, unsurprisingly, is the data. Friday’s weaker-than-forecast employment report was a poor start to the year, but it has not all been bad news. It looks like retail sales held up pretty well over the holiday season while the manufacturing sector outside of the euro zone had a very strong end to 2009.
Whether or not this trend continues and, crucially, if it results in job creation, will be a major factor.
The second thing to watch closely is how the market reacts to any change in tone from the world’s central banks. If the global economy does start to pick up then you would expect the Federal Reserve and European Central Bank to begin the process of withdrawing liquidity and cheap money from the system.
We all know that at some point this is going to happen, but if the market reacts to even a hint of higher rates by dumping assets and racing into cash there will be trouble.
The third thing to watch closely is CEO guidance. Michael Wolf, the CEO of banking giant Swedbank probably summed up the mood best when he told CNBC: “We would like to have a humble approach to 2010, it will be a bumpy year and there will be setbacks.”
Alcatel-Lucent chief Ben Verwaayen told CNBC 2010 will be a “transformational year” but does not want to make any concrete predictions. And he is not alone.
As we stand at the moment, there is probably not a CEO on earth who would predict how we are likely to fare this year. But a good start to the year would change that very quickly, so watch any comments on guidance from the end of February onwards.
The fourth area that could aid any recovery is mergers and acquisitions. We have already seen Novartis move to take full control of Alcon for just shy of $40 billion and Cadbury looks like it will be taken over by one of its many suitors before the end of the quarter.
Heineken has snapped up FEMSA’s beer operations for $5.4 billion indicating trade buyers are back. If the first quarter sees private equity buyers return to the market it could well underpin confidence that the worst is behind us and help drive gains on equity prices.
Bob Parker from Credit Suisse told CNBC this will be the case, but without this driver it would be a lot easier to listen to the bears predicting doom and gloom.
Finally you need to focus on refinancing of corporate and government debt in the first quarter. Pimco told investors it was reducing exposure to US and UK government bonds amid fears the sheer scale of supply expected to hit the market this year will lead to difficulties for both Treasurys and Gilts.
As the world’s largest bond fund’s managing director, Paul McCulley, put it: "You can only eat what's in the cafeteria, and right now the cafeteria doesn't have anything particularly appetizing in it."
If the Chinese or oil rich Middle East decide they are going to pass on lunch due to a bad menu then trouble awaits.
On the corporate side refinancing will be a massive issue. Manchester United, the UK football team owned by the Glazier family of the US, is widely reported to be trying to issue a $972 million bond to lower its borrowing costs.
While clearly not a huge deal on a global basis, Kit Jukes the chief economist and head of strategy at ECU Group, told "Squawk Box Europe" the very fact Manchester United a trying to do this deal speaks volumes.
This time last year there would have been no chance of this deal getting done, Jukes said. Twelve months later there is a chance, but uncertainty remains over the rate of interest the market will demand to buy into the offering. Other far bigger deals will need to be done before the second quarter.