One of the more intriguing aspects of the general election campaign is New Zealand First's policy "to move all container operations from Ports of Auckland to Northport by the end of 2027".

According to NZ First leader Winston Peters, "the days of the Ports of Auckland as a container port and as a car yard are numbered".

He went on to say that "New Zealand First will bring forward legislation to move all operations from Auckland to Northport. This will start with vehicles on Captain Cook Wharf ahead of the America's Cup. Aucklanders want their harbour back while Northlanders want the jobs and opportunities that would come from Northport's transformation".

Peters added that this policy "is a cast iron commitment from New Zealand First but it needs New Zealand First to be in a pivotal position to demand it".

Advertisement

Not surprisingly, Peters hasn't released any details on the costs of moving Ports of Auckland to Northport.

There are three ports involved in this proposal, directly or indirectly: Ports of Auckland; Port of Tauranga, which is 220km from Auckland; and Northport, which is 144km north of the main Auckland port.

Auckland

Ports of Auckland (POA) listed on the NZX in October 1993. This followed the sale of 39.8 million shares, or 20 per cent of the company, by the Waikato Regional Council at $1.60 a share. This gave Ports of Auckland a total sharemarket value of $318 million, with the Auckland Regional Services Trust retaining its 80 per cent stake.

In April 2005 Auckland Regional Holdings announced a takeover offer for POA at $8 a share, valuing the company at $848m. This compared with the pre-offer price of $6.44 a share and Grant Samuel's value of between $7.69 and $8.55 a share.

The $8 a share bid was successful, POA delisted and is now 100 per cent owned by Auckland Council Investments.

POA has been a disappointment under 100 per cent Auckland Council ownership. In the 13 years since 2003-04, its revenue has increased by only 35 per cent, to $222.4m, and net profit after tax by 36 per cent to $60.3m.

Tauranga

Port of Tauranga (POT) was listed in 1992 after issuing 20 million new shares at $1.05 each and the Waikato Regional Council selling all its 12.6 million shares at the same price. After the initial public offering, the company had a sharemarket value of just $80m, based on its $1.05 issue price. The Bay of Plenty Regional Council had a 55.3 per cent holding.

POT, which now has a sharemarket value of $2,960m, has been one of the most successful listed companies over the past 25 years.

For example, since 2003-04 POT's revenue has increased by 69 per cent to $255.9m, compared with POA's 35 per cent rise, and POT's net profit after tax has swelled 148 per cent to $83.4m, compared with POA's more modest 36 per cent profit increase.

Northland

Northland Port also listed on the sharemarket in 1992, shortly after Port of Tauranga. This followed the sale of 10 million shares, representing 24.1 per cent of the company, for $1.25 a share. This gave Northland Port a sharemarket value of $52m at the $1.25 IPO price, just slightly below POT's listing value.

The Northland company provided ship handling services to the NZ Refining jetty at Marsden Point and at Port Whangarei.

In 2002 the port activities at Marsden Point and Port Whangarei were transferred to Northport, a 50/50 joint venture between Northland Port and Port of Tauranga. NZX-listed Northland Port subsequently changed its name to Marsden Marine Holdings.

Marsden Marine is now an investment company with a 50 per cent stake in Northport, valued at $46.1m, and investment properties valued at $66.4m. These include freehold land, a marina and a commercial complex adjacent to Northport.

Its largest shareholders are Northland Regional Council, with a 53.6 per cent holding, and Ports of Auckland, with 19.9 per cent stake.

Marsden Marine has been a disappointing listed company, with a sharemarket value of only $215m. The company's directors received $198,000 for the June 2016 year, a large figure for an investment company with few employees.

Chairman Sir John Goulter, who is also chair of the hugely disappointing Metro Performance Glass, received director's fees of $54,000 for the June 2016 year and an additional $40,000 as chairman of Northport.

The opportunity to rationalise the port sector, and reduce commercial shipping activity at the Auckland port, was missed when Ports of Auckland withdrew from merger talks with Port of Tauranga in March 2007.

The Mount Manganui based port was clearly disappointed and chief executive Mark Cairns had this to say: "The economic and financial modelling demonstrates that the merger would generate significant financial benefits to be shared with customers and shareholders alike.

"The merger would also generate substantial public benefits: reducing CO2 emissions; facilitating better opportunities for coastal shipping; and making a start on the inevitable port rationalisation that needs to occur in New Zealand in the future with the advent of larger, faster container vessels."

He went on to say: "In a country with a population of approximately 4 million people (similar to Sydney) New Zealand's tax base simply cannot sustain the funding of high quality road and rail infrastructure connections to all 13 ports."

The proposed merger between Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga made far more sense than the Ports of Auckland/Northport scheme. There are several reasons for this, including:

• The cost of building an extensive road and rail network from Marsden Point to Auckland would be prohibitive and take decades to complete. Coastal shipping could be an alternative, but these ships would continue to use Ports of Auckland

• Northport is small and would need substantial expenditure on its facilities, particularly container handling facilities

• The move from Ports of Auckland to Northport would put huge pressure on the Marsden Point facility. For example, 673 container ships visited Auckland in the June 2017 year compared with only 36 berthing at Northport. In addition, Auckland had 181 vehicle carrier visits while Marsden Point had none in the same 12-month period. Thus, if Ports of Auckland moved its container ship and vehicle carrier operations to Northland, the Marsden Point facility would have to facilitate 854 of these vessel arrivals every year instead of 36 at present

• There is a mismatch between Northport and Ports of Auckland because the former is a bulk port and the latter is predominantly a container port. Northport had export log volumes of 2,808,000 tonnes for the June 2017 year, representing 77 per cent of its total bulk exports, while Ports of Auckland container volumes were 952,331 TEU (one TEU equals one standard 20-foot container).

The obvious solution to the Ports of Auckland issue is the partial privatisation of the company and a listing on the NZX. There are two main reasons for this.

Port of Tauranga and Auckland International Airport have been great performers as listed companies and are paying large dividends to their council shareholders. By contrast, Ports of Auckland has been a disappointment since the Auckland Council acquired its 100 per cent holding.

Under a sharemarket listing, there is a far better chance of a merger, or a joint venture agreement, between Ports of Auckland and Port of Tauranga. This is because local body politicians, who are usually opposed to these commercial agreements, would have a limited influence.

An Auckland/Tauranga agreement could lead to a sharp reduction in commercial ship visits to Auckland and enable Auckland importers and exporters to switch their business to a well governed and well managed port facility at Mount Manganui.

A merger between Ports of Auckland and Northport doesn't make sense from a commercial or cost point of view.

• Brian Gaynor is an executive director of Milford Asset Management.