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The only constant? Change

Thursday, 13 November 2008

ON 11 September 2001, Irish poet Seamus Heaney was in the library at Harvard when hijacked aircraft hit the Twin Towers, the Pentagon and a field outside Philadelphia.

He wrote words that could also apply to recent financial market upheavals, a split in South Africa's ruling party and the first black man being elected to the White House:

Anything can happen. You know how Jupiter
Will mostly wait for clouds to gather head
Before he hurls the lightning? Well, just now
He galloped his thunder-cart and his horses
Across a clear blue sky.
It shook the earth...
Anything can happen, the tallest things
Be overturned, those in high places daunted,
Those overlooked regarded...

What recent events underscore is that change is the only constant, that stability is a myth and evolution is eternal. These are the times we will tell our grandchildren about.

To survive them we need to rethink everything we know. While many are focused on gloom, we forget that many enterprises thrive during adversity.

Counter-cyclical industries include healthcare - the stress of debt or managing companies that are not performing up to expectations ensure that any industry involved in healthcare will prosper. And with medical aids announcing increases of up to 12% in monthly fees from next year, it's enough to make most of us ill.

A recent joint Associated Press and America Online poll showed that around 16 million Americans were "debt-stressed". The poll also showed that:

• 27% had ulcers;
• 44% experienced migraines;
• 29% suffered severe anxiety;
• 23% had severe depression;
• 6% reported heart attacks, double the rate for those with low debt stress; and
• 51% had back pain and people with high debt stress have trouble sleeping and tend to be irritable.

Healthbridge managing director Luis da Silva says similar trends prevail here.

This has an impact on the workplace, with high levels of absenteeism after mid-month as employees battle to find enough transport money to get to work.

There is low productivity as employees sit and worry or even refuse to answer phones, according to Consumer Assist CEO André Snyman, because they are scared it might be creditors on the other side.

And with 10% of all employees with garnishee orders on their salaries, his company, the largest umbrella organisation for debt counsellors in the country, and the National Credit Regulator are kept busy running financial wellness programmes in everything from major financial institutions to large steel producers.

Fags, drinks weather any storm

Other counter-cyclical sectors or industries? Retail stores say that alcohol and cigarettes are recession-proof and may even see an upward spike in sales as anxiety leads to some drinking or smoking more.

Cellphone payment systems, of which there are now 12 in South Africa, are seeing increased interest "as consumers realise they are significantly cheaper than using the internet or even cash", POCit MD David Reynders says. Payments by POCit, as an example, are 30c each compared to a minimum of R2 for internet banking and at least R5 to draw cash from an ATM or about R7 to draw cash from a bank teller.

Vehicle sales may drop but car part sales increase, with Toyota reporting a 45% rise including exports of parts.

There is one area that should never see cuts if we are preparing for the future, but one top training organisation says it occurs. AstroTech CEO Lisa van Wyk says that "while training for business support staff tends to decline, it increases for those in management and executive positions."

Investec strategist Michael Power predicts a slow upturn beginning in the second half of 2009.

Now is the time to shed the mourning gear and begin restrategising. Prepare today for tomorrow's good times.