Fran O'Sullivan: Chinese get message: We're open for business

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Shanghai Pengxin's has bought 16 Crafar dairy farms and plans to explore investments such as vineyards, mineral water and aquaculture. Photo / Supplied
Shanghai Pengxin's has bought 16 Crafar dairy farms and plans to explore investments such as vineyards, mineral water and aquaculture. Photo / Supplied

Bill English has sent a clear message to China that New Zealand is open for business.

New Zealand needs direct foreign investment and China should be at the table was the upshot of the Finance Minister's speech to the Victoria University-Peking University Conference on Contemporary China in Wellington this week.

Not only does the Government need to sell its bonds (and China is a substantial investor at a time when there is strong pressure in the international debt markets) but New Zealand also needs to attract long-term co-investors from overseas to invest in major infrastructures such as the Christchurch rebuild and potentially Auckland's transport projects.

Substantial licks of capital will be required in coming years.

There are not too many nations with significant foreign reserves at their disposal for this purpose.

Kiwi firms such as Fonterra, Rakon and Richina already have significant investments in China. But the overall footprint is small.

Although China is rapidly becoming New Zealand's major trading partner, the investment relationship is much smaller than the trading links.

China is New Zealand's 11th largest source of foreign direct investment. China is also the 13th biggest investment destination for NZ firms investing overseas.

English's speech was carefully crafted to try to defuse domestic concerns over foreign direct investment - particularly from China.

He noted that firms built up under foreign ownership could move or return to NZ ownership, citing the Shell petrol stations which were recently acquired by New Zealand-owned Z Energy.

He also stressed that large-scale local and foreign corporate farm owners soon realised they had to "live it and love it" in order to make any money out of farming.

But while English clearly wants to defuse hostile sentiment over Shanghai Pengxin's acquisition of the 16 Crafar dairy farms, he may have stretched the point when talking to journalists. English was reported as saying he would not be surprised if the farms reverted to New Zealand ownership sometime in the future.

But Shanghai Pengxin had bought them with goodwill and stuck it out through two testing years to get their operation: first buying the farms then setting up a dairy exporting business to China.

The reality is that Shanghai Pengxin is not going to be leaving New Zealand any time soon.

Shanghai Pengxin chairman Jiang Zhaobai outlined a very ambitious investment agenda during a trip to New Zealand a fortnight ago when he said he intended to explore investments in other areas such as vineyards, mineral water, aquaculture and processing in New Zealand.

"By combining the various agro-activities in South America, New Zealand and China, Pengxin aspires to create a modern agro-industrial integration and produce safer, healthier and better food for people in China," a Pengxin memorandum disclosed.

"From the world's field to China's dining table - that's our vision and Pengxin will achieve everything there is to achieve."

It is still possible that two iwi might seek leave from the Court of Appeal to challenge the court's judgment in the Supreme Court.

But assuming there are no further legal delays, Shanghai Pengxin is expected to move swiftly to settle the Crafar farms acquisition.

There are also elements to be finalised with Landcorp, which has entered into a deal to manage the farms.

Pengxin has to confirm its lines of credit in China (all private companies seeking to buy assets overseas as part of China's Go Global thrust must do this).

It also needs to finalise approval from the Shanghai Foreign Exchange Commission.

Pengxin's holding costs will be significant.

The appreciation of the NZ dollar since the Chinese firm announced its bid in late 2010 will also affect the underlying financials.

These factors - plus the significant goodwill in the bid price (which English noted) - will clearly put pressure on its NZ subsidiary Milk New Zealand to perform.

But it does not seem likely that Pengxin will be bowing out of its New Zealand dairy farms investment in the short to medium term. The group plans to invest a further $100 million to renovate and expand the existing farms to increase capacity, and make further improvements to milk sheds, equipment, grass and soil conditions and research and development.

In material circulated to prospective co-investors, Pengxin hinted it might make low interest loans available to "low-order sharemilkers" - aka young farmers - to help them become 50-50 sharemilkers.

The Pengxin document outlines plans to set up a proper management company in New Zealand which would engage experienced Kiwi professionals and hire Kiwi sharemilkers.

Other planned initiatives will be to introduce advanced bio-fertiliser technology to the farms.

During its visit, Pengxin outlined a tentative development plan.

The company would sell milk to Fonterra in the initial stage, then look for local dairy companies to co-operate on manufacturing and packaging UHT fresh milk which would be exported to the Chinese market.

It would also seek to invest $50 million into dairy manufacturing and R&D facilities in New Zealand (this is in line with plans disclosed in its Overseas Investment Office application).

During his New Zealand visit, Jiang met a number of Maori business leaders including Ngai Tahu chairman Mark Solomon plus Richard Wyeth who is chief executive of Miraka.

Last week, Jiang finally got the OIO's approval for a proposed investment in his private capacity to purchase a Gulf Harbour project which has been in receivership.

Jiang has 45 per cent, his co-investors include Shanghai Zendai (45 per cent) and Terry Lee (10 per cent).

Shanghai Pengxin is at the beginning of its investment cycle here - not the end.

- NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan

A columnist for the NZ Herald

Fran O'Sullivan has written a weekly column for the Business Herald since its inception in April 1997. In her early journalistic career she was a political journalist in Wellington and subsequently an investigative journalist who broke many major business stories including the first articles that led to the Winebox Inquiry in both NBR and the Sydney Morning Herald. She has specific expertise in relation to China where she has been a frequent visitor since the late 1990s. She is a former Editor of the National Business Review; has twice been awarded Qantas Journalist of the Year and is a multiple winner of the Westpac Financial Journalism Supreme Award.

Read more by Fran O'Sullivan

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