Fran O'Sullivan: Not just Americans wanting an NZ bolthole

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Figures show far more wealthy Chinese than any other nationality have come into New Zealand through the Investor Migrant scheme. Picture / Mark Mitchell.
Figures show far more wealthy Chinese than any other nationality have come into New Zealand through the Investor Migrant scheme. Picture / Mark Mitchell.

Donald Trump's "bestie" Peter Thiel was crash-tackled by the politicians after he effectively bought his New Zealand citizenship by investing here.

But it's not simply wealthy Americans who are pulling out their chequebooks to invest in New Zealand and secure a bolthole in what is internationally being spruiked as a safe haven (the Switzerland of the South Pacific).

Figures show far more wealthy Chinese than any other nationality have come into New Zealand through the Investor Migrant scheme.

The problem is they have not (so far) accompanied that investment with the appetite for risk that Chinese business people are renowned for. And China's clampdown on overseas investment may impact on the ability to leverage the scheme.

Of the total $5.3 billion which is said to be in the global investment pipeline (via the Investor Migrant scheme) as at February 2, 2017 - $3.33b has either come into New Zealand or is in the pipeline from Chinese investors.

Chinese investors had already invested $1.662b in approved categories by February 2 with 55 investors having invested $10 million to qualify for entry to New Zealand under the Investor Plus category.

A further 777 Chinese migrants have also come in under the Investor 2 category, which requires a $1.5m investment and other conditions such as spending considerable time in New Zealand to qualify for permanent residency.

That is a huge vote of confidence by wealthy Chinese in the New Zealand economy.

As a point of comparison, while Chinese arrivals make up 38 per cent of those in the Investor Plus category, the next highest is the United States (22 per cent), then Japan (10 per cent), Britain (5 per cent), Germany (4 per cent), South Korea (3 per cent), Canada (2 per cent), Hong Kong (2 per cent) and Indonesia (2 per cent). Other nationalities account for 12 per cent of investors.

However, the Immigration NZ figures tend to indicate that much of this Chinese investment has been the bare minimum to secure residency.

And while that investment is clearly within the rules, far too much of that money is basically lazy cash.

Immigration NZ figures suggest just 19.66 per cent of the $1.662b already invested by Chinese applicants has been directed into productive assets where the investor shoulders considerable financial risk. Whereas 45 per cent of that already invested by applicants from Britain and 46 per cent of that from the United States has been in productive assets. Worldwide, the comparable figure is 32 per cent.

Instead, much of the investor revenue goes into government bonds, which are essentially relatively risk-free, in reality little more than cash deposited in a "government bank".

This is all perfectly within the rules. But it does suggest that the Chinese appetite for taking more business risk in New Zealand needs to be whetted so more of their investment goes into equities, greenfields investment and venture capital to back early-stage companies.

The Government has asked officials to ensure overall revenue from the Investor Migrant scheme reaches $7b by 2018. Forthcoming policy changes in May 2017 are designed to encourage greater levels of productive investment. The aim is to ensure 40 per cent of the migrant investor capital goes into investment that carries risk.

INZ's Bank Research Report (February 2015) and the Oystercatcher Research Report (2016) show that on average investor migrants bring in more capital than required under the current policy. For instance, under the Investor Plus scheme the average invested per applicant is $30m.

Immigration NZ has been explaining to Chinese investors the significance of the forthcoming changes designed to stimulate more investment into productive assets.

Officials are working with private sector providers to enable a greater range of productive assets for Investor Migrants to choose from under the overall governance of the Business Growth Agenda Investment Task Force, chaired by NZTE chief executive Peter Chrisp.

Officials have stressed that Investor Migration is a path to permanent residency - not directly to citizenship. But there is no doubting it gives potential migrants a leg-up when it ultimately comes to securing citizenship.

When it comes to the Investor 2 scheme, 69 per cent (to date) have come from China.
Other comparisons are Britain (6 per cent) and the US (5 per cent). The $1.5m investment required will double to $3m in May and some of this must go into productive assets. There is also due to be more stringency around language and other requirements.

Obviously it is not just Chinese investors who have to meet the tighter requirements. But by bridging the investment gap - when it comes to the level of risk appetite displayed by Chinese nationals versus those from Britain and the US - there could be a significant boost for New Zealand companies looking for capital.

The issue is whether officials go hard when it comes to sorting investment prospects for overseas investors.

Another key issue is whether New Zealand has left its run rather late to better leverage Chinese capital coming into the country. On December 31, 2016, China's State Administration of Foreign Exchange said all buyers of foreign exchange must sign a pledge they won't use their $50,000 quotas for offshore property investment. Violators will be added to a government watch list, denied access to foreign currency for three years and subjected to money-laundering investigations, Safe said.

Given that Investor Migrants have to stay in New Zealand for particular periods to qualify for permanent residency it is obvious most investors will also buy places here to live in during their qualifying time. Residences do not qualify as an approved investment.
But the Safe clampdown could well be a turnoff if the wealthy cannot get their cash out of China so easily.

Time will tell - but making it tougher for Investor Migrants to "buy their way" in ahead of others is a positive step for New Zealand.

- 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.

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