Business + Economy: reflections on our first year

He should have read The Conversation. AAP

The really good business stories do more than inform. They bring a irresistible human drama: a country teeters on the edge of ruin; a government bets its future on unpopular taxes; an entrepreneur achieves dazzling success, then is felled.

And similarly, the best business analysis cuts through the often bewildering detail to illuminate some simple human truth behind that big deal, that market movement, or that government policy.

What we hoped to do when we launched The Conversation - and of course it remains our goal - was to provide in-depth, knowledgeable analysis, backgrounded by compelling facts - so easily lost or forgotten. And into that mix we wanted to stir in some surprising and provocative ideas and perspectives.

As I look back over the first year of The Conversation’s business and economy section, it’s hard to think about a more tumultuous financial period - both here in Australia and globally. It certainly wasn’t difficult to find those controversial talking points.

This time last year, debate over two controversial taxes was already in full swing: the mining resources rent tax, the tax which sunk a Prime Minister, and the carbon tax, which introduced a new word to the popular lexicon: climate deniers.

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Meanwhile in Europe, the ghost of past government policies had arrived home: a howling maelstrom of debt that threatened the stability of the Eurozone and the very sovereignty of some nations. The result has been some startingly good analysis.

May’s Federal Budget - and the promise of a surplus in 2012 - was our first set-piece for The Conversation. It was an early challenge to our model. We promised our readers, fast, relevant expert analysis; but this would be the first test.

Minutes after Treasurer Wayne Swan took his parliamentary seat, the Grattan Institute’s Saul Eslake (who has now moved to a role at Bank of America Merrill lynch) filed our first copy, in the space between his interviews for the ABC. Twenty minutes later our story went up and as the night wore on, it was repeatedly updated as the analysis rolled in from our panel of academic experts - and our readership kept rising. The model worked.

I can’t pull a favourite from the now-thousands of stories we have published. But… there are those which stay in the mind. Those who thought they knew what they were getting with Kevin Cox’s story, so tantalising headlined “A house for half the cost? Here’s how” continue to be intrigued and bamboozled.

Kwanghui Lim’s wildly popular article, published soon after we launched, on the real reasons behind the demise of book sellers Borders and Angus and Robertson was in many ways a textbook example of what we wanted to try to achieve: a concise, thoughtful account of the factors which doomed the company, using original sources and research. Journalism written by academics.

Earlier, I mentioned that the human truths revealed behind business stories are what make them most compelling. If there is one human truth that resounds this year, it is risk. What makes us risk? Why are we so bad at guessing how bad something will be? And why is it that we appear to stop caring when we pass that risk onto someone else?

Warren Buffett is quoted as saying that “only when the tide goes out do you discover who’s been swimming naked”.

In one of our signature long-form In Conversation interviews, credit derivatives trader and author Satyajit Das - explained to the University of Melbourne’s Kevin Davis the basic tactics of avoiding regulation.

“The last (tactic), what I call the nuclear option, is that you let them regulate,” Das told Davis. “But you make it so complicated and so detailed that there are loopholes everywhere and it’s unmanageable. And you know the regulators won’t have the resources or the actual expertise to regulate you properly, so the whole thing will crumble under its own weight.”

There’s plenty of truth in that.


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