Aviation, tourism and energy writer for the Business Herald

Questions on who'll get in first for SOEs

File photo / Greg Bowker
File photo / Greg Bowker

A queue of investors is likely for partially listed state-owned enterprises but it remains unclear as to how New Zealand buyers will head the line.

Analysts suggest discounted and bonus shares would attract local "mum and dad" retail investors and funds such as KiwiSaver.

If re-elected, a National Government plans to sell up to 49 per cent of Meridian, Genesis, Mighty River, Solid Energy and Air New Zealand, but in an attempt to assuage public concern at asset sales it says New Zealanders will be at the front of the queue for shares.

A spokesman for Finance Minister Bill English said yesterday that if the process went ahead, there was confidence New Zealanders would own at least 85 per cent to 90 per cent of these companies - including the Government's controlling shareholding.

While it was too early to detail any specific incentives, that confidence was built on figures showing how much New Zealanders had to invest.

New Zealanders had more than $300 billion of investments excluding their own homes, including money in term deposits, financial assets and investment housing.

Other big potential investors included KiwiSaver providers, which had funds worth $9 billion, and other institutions which had $59 billion under management.

Crown financial institutions (including the NZ Super Fund, ACC and the Government super fund) had almost $40 billion under management and iwi had over $10 billion of assets.

The spokesman said no detailed consideration had yet been given to issues such as a possible price discount. "In terms of the sales process, all options remain on the table and will be made clear early next year."

A Cabinet paper soon after the May Budget also said overseas investors would be important in supporting the share price to maximise the sale price or provide "pricing tension to support the Government's fiscal objectives".

Ministers said then that they intended to maintain flexibility on the potential use of foreign ownership restrictions, such as the 10 per cent cap on individual shareholders and 49 per cent total ownership when Telecom was privatised in 1990 or separate domestic shares such as when Air New Zealand was privatised in 1989.

Bernard Doyle, a strategist at JB Were, said institutional investors were already doing work on the companies earmarked for partial listing.

For non-institutional investors the impetus would come on after the election. "I know there is an intent to get good participation from mum and dad investors so there are plenty of mechanisms that can entice greater household participation."

In Queensland small retail buyers were offered a share discount - about 4 per cent - when the state rail company was privatised last year.

Doyle agreed the SOEs would be attractive to a range of buyers including KiwiSaver providers, the NZ Superannuation fund and many New Zealanders who had channelled investment into Australia because of the dearth of opportunities here.

"Our market has been suffering from the lack of these. They are what they are. They're electricity generators and for a person investing in markets that's down the safer end of town in terms of risk," he said.

Des Hunt of the Shareholders Association said mum and dad investors would be interested if the price was right and yields were enough.

They wanted to know how they would be given fair access at the time the companies were listed. "The retail shareholder has been very badly looked after for quite a while.

"They must get a fair go and I would also expect the ACC and the Super fund get priority over the Australians."

There was a need to ensure small shareholders stayed with the newly listed company to avoid the Contact Energy situation where within two years of floating its register had shrunk from 225,000 to 161,000.

Share bonus schemes, where a new share is issued if investors keep their shares for a certain time, have been suggested as a means of avoiding this.

Market commentator Arthur Lim said small shareholders' applications were severely scaled back for the Auckland Airport float in 1998 and Contact the year after and a bigger public pool was essential for any new SOE initial public offerings.

- NZ Herald

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