By some strange phenomenon of mass amnesia, business people who are experiencing good times find it hard to imagine bad times - and vice versa. In the early 2000s, it was impossible to believe that the rand would ever strengthen beyond R12 or R13 to the US$. In mid-2005, investors in most sectors are almost taking for granted the huge and sustained increases in revenue and earnings per share. Few companies reported no growth, and many delivered quite spectacular returns. Even those most damaged by a strong rand have shown determination to regroup and adapt.
Business confidence is strong and there is unqualified admiration for the way fiscal and monetary policy has been handled by government. Interest rates and inflation are at their lowest for decades, and much has been made of a claimed structural change in the economy, that we are now beyond the familiar boom-and-bust cycle that formed the context for an entire business generation during the last three decades or so of the 20th century. Even the empowerment imperative is generally embraced and creatively promoted by traditionally white businesses, whereas a few years ago there was only resentful talk of the difficulties.
The experts keep asking: "Where's the catch?" Are the banks extending too much credit? No, comes the answer, as a nation we are certainly not overborrowed, and the retailers' bad debts are at a better than comfortable level. Will the seemingly endless growth in property prices end in tears when the bubble bursts? Well, no, comes the confident answer - the market is catching up after many years of stagnation, and in any case the thing to understand about bursting economic bubbles is that they are by definition unexpected. If you talk about bubbles and worry about them, the market accommodates this and ensures they don't happen.
In contrast with the petulance of a few years ago, there seems to be greater understanding and acceptance among business people that government has limited power when it comes to the exchange rate - or, to be more precise, its power is uneven, and application of it depends more on art than science. The Reserve Bank can raise or lower interest rates whenever it chooses, but it can be little more than an interested but helpless spectator to the fluctuations of the dollar. Of course, there is no shortage of advice from economists and business people on what the Reserve Bank should do about the rand. Miners and exporters still talk darkly about a "more realistic" level. But advice now tends to be less aggressive and more nuanced.
That adaptability reflects a broader return to common sense. After years of "core competence", "unlocking value" and "focus" being the dominant jargon, diversification is back in fashion. In a world of so many imponderables, the business models of BHP Billiton, Bidvest or Grindrod - three of this year's FM Top Companies' outstanding performers - is hard to fault. Not only do they refuse to put all their eggs in one basket, they make sure they have a variety of both eggs and baskets.
Government's approach to regulation in specific sectors has impressed far less than its handling of the economy. Can it be a coincidence that the sectors that have thrived most over the past two years - retail, property, banking and leisure - are those that have been least affected by regulatory strangulation or uncertainty? Investors in areas such as telecommunications, media, mining and health may have made money out of particular companies, but broad sectoral growth is held back because of government inefficiency, policy confusion or misguided ideology.
But regulation is a fact of life, as are the imperatives of empowerment, governance, globalisation and shareholder value. Our annual snapshot of the SA listed business sector shows (among much else) which management teams are best at combining nuts-and-bolts focus with a deep understanding of the complex environment in which they operate.