Two transtasman heads better than one

By Alex Malley

We need to join forces with our neighbour to attract capital to the region in a hyper competitive Asian century. Photo / Dean Purcell
We need to join forces with our neighbour to attract capital to the region in a hyper competitive Asian century. Photo / Dean Purcell

Businesses in New Zealand and Australia find themselves at a most interesting historical juncture - and not just in the ironic sense as conveyed by the famous Chinese saying.

Yes, there are challenges to be met but also very real opportunities to be grasped.

Access to finance and other sources of capital are among the challenges for many sectors across the two economies. In light of this, businesses and governments on both sides of the Tasman have to consider which measures to take to attract the necessary finance and capital.

Faced with a changing and rapidly shifting regional and global landscape, the onus is on business and political leaders in both nations to think differently and, most important of all, think long-term.

Businesses, regardless of size, need a steady flow of capital to innovate, to be entrepreneurial and to grow. In short, capital helps them do things better; to stay ahead of the curve.

Finding new ways to do this, over and above traditional methods, will be critical.

How might the two jurisdictions best achieve such outcomes? It could well be a case of two heads being better than one; a collective vision to help ensure both New Zealand and Australia thrive over the long-term and beyond.

The notion of Closer Economic Relations (CER) is regularly bandied about at an official level and indeed, since a formal agreement was entered into almost 30 years ago, the nations have made some significant strides toward greater integration.

Australia and New Zealand already work together closely at official levels. The recently announced joint study by the nations' respective Productivity Commissions - which will examine closer economic integration and report to both governments at a prime ministerial level later this year - is a significant case in point.

The fact that New Zealand and Australia are the only two nations with Productivity Commissions further highlights their similarities.

It is important to stress that while the issues facing the business communities in both countries are distinct, they are not dissimilar. The joint study must therefore examine some approaches which some may consider left field.

The development and growth of the corporate bond market in both nations as one possible way to attract capital is one such approach.

It is an issue regularly raised in Australia, especially since the Global Financial Crisis and its ensuing finance squeeze. Seeing how this could be achieved in a co-ordinated fashion across the two jurisdictions may give such a market the critical mass which to date it has lacked, thus boosting its viability.

Recent reports of the rapidly growing interest from Asian investors in Australian government debt as an alternative to higher risk European and North American options could perhaps serve as a pointer to how this might work. The strength of the private sector in both economies could position the debt of New Zealand and Australian entities as attractive investment options for cashed up investors.

In a similar vein the attraction and use of venture capital must be examined. Critically the conditions must be established that would attract the sort of venture capital aimed at the long-term, value-added approach as opposed to one which favours a get in, get out quick while the going's good.

In this context the importance of uniform accounting standards and broader business language across the two jurisdictions as well as the streamlining of regulation will be critical.

CPA Australia has strongly advocated this for some time as a way of bringing about greater efficiency, transparency and ultimately boosting investor confidence.

Because greater economic integration can at times be an emotive issue it is useful to reinforce the synergies inherent across the two markets.

Both are developed economies, located in a region characterised by economies at various stages of development. CPA Australia's most recent Asia Pacific small business survey showed a real similarity of issues and concerns among the small business sector across the two nations, with confidence levels generally low in comparison to their regional counterparts.

Some nations in Oceania for example operate economies not far above subsistence level, while those of nations like Indonesia and Vietnam are growing at rapid rates.

There are of course also the traditional Asian tigers, such as Singapore and Korea, with whom both nations have strong existing economic ties but who are also competitors.

Australia finds itself wrestling with the challenge of a pronounced two-speed economy, with the resources sector booming, while other industries (manufacturing in particular) are lagging behind. In New Zealand, although the difference is not as acute, the reliance on the agricultural sector in particular also sees a two-speed economy of sorts.

They share therefore the inevitable and somewhat painful process of structural adjustment with the heightened need for productivity improvements to ensure sustained competitiveness in the coming decades.

Despite the fears sometimes expressed in response to the idea, closer economic integration is not synonymous with a loss of national sovereignty or cultural identity. In fact, greater economic strength can serve to highlight these even further.

Both nations have a history of excelling well beyond the confines of size and geography.

With the economic epicentre clearly shifting to our part of the world, geography is no longer an issue. It is time for the political and business classes of our respective nations to draw on that spirit of entrepreneurialism and sense of adventure that has served us so well in the past as we look to plot a new future.

In spite of Australia's inevitable rugby supremacy, I see a wonderful transtasman future.

Alex Malley is CEO of CPA Australia

- NZ Herald

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