Fran O'Sullivan: By-the-book rules leave Chinese investor 'stuck in a black box'

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Shanghai Pengxin's Jiang Zhaobai is frustrated by the time it takes to get Overseas Investment Office approval.
Shanghai Pengxin's Jiang Zhaobai is frustrated by the time it takes to get Overseas Investment Office approval.

Shanghai Pengxin chairman Jiang Zhaobai likens the Overseas Investment Office (OIO) to a "black box".

"Once you get in ... you can't get out", he says.

Jiang's frustration was palpable when I talked with him about his application to the OIO to transfer the ownership of Pengxin's considerable New Zealand dairy assets to Hunan Dakang Pasture Farming Co. Pengxin has the controlling stake in this listed vehicle. However the bid has been stuck in front of the OIO for 20 months.

There is clearly a fundamental difference in perception here. On the one hand there is Jiang, with his fast-moving entrepreneurialism which endeavours to slice through bureaucratic obstacles and get to the deal (what he refers to as "Chinese feet"). On the other hand there are the regulators in New Zealand, administering the "by the book" - but painfully slow - foreign investment regime.

Jiang is nursing a sore point: he brought a big contingent of Shanghai entrepreneurs to New Zealand at the time of President Xi Jinping's visit in late 2014, but he can't get his own asset transfer across the line.

Transferring the dairy assets into Hunan Dakang is a crucial move in Jiang's gameplan. It is also integral to the credibility of Hunan Dakang and its shareholders.

The Financial Times recently reported that Pengxin had raised funds through the high-interest shadow banking market by issuing trust products, a common strategy when housing prices were soaring.

"As markets slumped, it reshuffled overseas mining and land assets into its listed units. An article in China's Securities Times newspaper in 2014 described the company as a 'hurtling capital train' that must continue growing to move forward."

In May, China's regulators homed in on Dakang. The Shenzhen Stock Exchange said it was concerned about excessive turnover among the board and management of Hunan Dakang Pasture Farming Co.

Its "high level of concern" followed the recent resignation of chairman Liu Wei and the exit of its chief financial officer, Zhang Zhihua. The chairman had changed twice in recent times and the board had been without a company secretary since October.

"We would like Dakang to recruit a board secretary as soon as possible and also take concrete measures to maintain stable operation of the company," the exchange's statement said.

In New Zealand, Gary Romano, who was heading Dakang's international expansion, stood down this year. Andy McLeod, who headed Pengxin's NEw Zealand farming interests, has also resigned.

There are a number of other issues. Jiang gained "unique" control over a Queenstown hotel complex, despite not owning the property outright. After an OIO investigation, retrospective consent was granted.

And in Australia, where Liberal Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull's Government rests on a knife-edge majority, it looks unlikely Dakang and its Chinese partner Shanghai CRED will succeed in getting up another bid for the iconic S. Kidman & Co cattle station.

This hasn't stopped the company from making a major acquisition in Brazil.

Jiang is clearly used to an international environment where significant investors - and he is certainly that - can talk to politicians about their issues And if there are problems, they can deal directly with the relevant foreign investment authority.

But this is not the case here. Hence his complaint that he is now "stuck in a black box" with no indication from the OIO when a decision will happen.

A special meeting was arranged with the Prime Minister.

But because of the rules, the pair are said to have focused on Pengxin's contribution to this country's economy and its future intentions.

Pengxin has $579m invested in New Zealand agriculture, dairy product development, property and tourism. About 500 jobs have been created; $30m-plus has been invested in capital farm improvement and environmental protection; and 3000 containers of New Zealand value-added dairy goods are planned for export in 2016, which will make Pengxin the No 1 client of the Cosco NZ shipping line.

Pengxin has spent 200m yuan ($42m) on marketing in China, promoting New Zealand dairy products, and is helping to expose a million middle-class Chinese to New Zealand tourism with prizes and social media.

It's also among Fonterra's top 10 shareholders.

So far, so good.

That record would appear to underline Jiang's intention to be a good corporate citizen in New Zealand.

That's something the Prime Minister himself obliquely referred to at a recent luncheon when he said: "There have been long-time investors in New Zealand and Shanghai Pengxin is a good example of that. If you decide tomorrow you want to make another investment in New Zealand, currently the OIO will go back to square one and ask all of the basic questions - even though we know you have invested in the past, we know what your track record is, and we know you've done a good job of doing all the things you said you would do."

Therein lies the problem as the OIO has to assess Dakang and its key personnel - not simply Pengxin and Jiang and their own stellar record here.

- NZ Herald

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Head of Business for NZME

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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