In part 2 of her examination of the rural debt crisis, Karyn Scherer asks if selling to foreigners is the only way out for cash-strapped farmers.
See part 1 here.
Allan Crafar can't pinpoint the exact moment he lost control of the agricultural empire it took him 30 years to build. But it may have been around the time he accused the head of credit at one of his banks of wanting to sell his farms at a bargain price just so the manager's mates could buy them up.
Knowing Allan, he probably phrased it in terms that would make Paul Henry blush. And guess what - it turns out it doesn't pay to be rude to someone who has lent you more than $200 million. Who knew?
He can, however, recall the exact day that 16 farms owned by his family were placed in receivership. It was October 5, 2009.
Since then, the receivers have attempted to lure Allan and his loyal wife Beth out of their relatively new farmhouse at the edge of the giant Kaingaroa Forest in almost alpine Reporoa. But the couple have spurned offers of free rental accommodation in nearby Rotorua, and have made it clear they consider themselves under siege.
The couple - like many of those who choose to make their living from the land - are tough as old gumboots. But the toll of being drawn into a national debate over the future of farming, "dirty dairying", and the perils of taking on too much debt, is definitely showing.
For nearly 18 months, they have had no income at all, requiring them to rely on the generosity of their children, and sometimes total strangers, so they can buy necessities such as groceries.
Meanwhile, production from at least one of their farms has plunged, and millions of dollars are being paid to lawyers and accountants to sort out the situation. According to reports filed with the Companies Office, the receivers alone have already been paid more than $4.2 million.
The same thing is happening to many other farmers, says Allan. "It's financial genocide," he exclaims.
As always when subjects dear to Kiwis' hearts come up for public discussion, many New Zealanders have a strong opinion on the Crafar saga. Even some fellow farmers are astounded they managed to become one of the largest private landowners in New Zealand. But despite - or perhaps because of - their clashes with the authorities over animal welfare and environmental issues, the couple continue to have many supporters in the rural community.
Pongaroa farmer Janette Walker recalls that when Allan first started farming, "nobody would fund him because they thought he was a hayseed". After he managed to get funding from overseas, "the banks here started chasing him and throwing money at him", she says.
The debate has even hit Wikipedia. Someone with the pseudonym "Mr February", who appears to be geologist and former DOC worker Simon Johnson, has created an entry about the Crafars which has upset a former employee of the couple.
"I'm sure if you took the time to get to know these people and investigate the real facts behind these cases you would change your tune," the person has written. "Also, I'm sure that if it was your family involved you would show a little more compassion ... I know certain government organisations are trying hard to cover up the mess they made and are pretty happy to let the Crafars take the fall for it."
Not all farmers blame the banks for the massive amount of debt accumulated by the rural sector over the past decade. Some admit they were equally to blame for the type of behaviour that could, in hindsight, be compared to what happens to teenagers when their parents go away for the weekend.
But some struggle to understand why the banks started calling in their loans, instead of waiting for farm incomes to improve.
Federated Farmers' economics spokesman, Phil York, believes even the Crafars should have been left to get on with it.
"If they had been supported over that year, they would be completely viable now. But the banks went galloping off in the other direction. The Reserve Bank rattled a few sabres and they took fright and now they've stopped to gather their wind and perhaps go in the other direction."
It has been reported the Crafars breached the covenants on their loans, but a prominent rural estate agent also believes their financial problems have been exaggerated.
"The Crafars weren't in trouble at all, but when the forecast [payout] of $4.55 came out, then everyone started ducking for cover," he says.
"All of a sudden the banks got the jitters, so interest rates started going up, and they stopped lending and started to ask for more security, and it just started a downward slide which, looking back, was totally unnecessary."
As it happened, the payout ended up being much higher than $4.55 per kg of milksolids. But two other factors were also significant contributors to the banks' nervousness. In the middle of 2008, the rural land price bubble suddenly burst. And a few months later, the sub-prime mortgage scandal in the United States turned into a global financial crisis.
The confluence of all these factors, some believe, has led to the agricultural sector facing a significant dilemma: burdened with massive debts after nearly a decade of irrationally exuberant borrowing, many farms are now looking for new owners. But there are few local buyers with enough cash to oblige.
Foreign buyers may fill the vacuum. With food regarded as the new oil on international markets, investors are scouring the world looking for bargains. And the newly wealthy Chinese are not the only ones on the prowl. In recent months, there have been some high-profile sales of New Zealand farms to Swiss, German and American investors.
The Harvard Endowment Fund, which late last year was given permission to buy the 1300ha Big Sky farm near Patearoa, already owns another Maniototo dairy farm, as well forestry assets in the North Island.
The American university is said to have also sniffed around the Crafar farms. Singapore's sovereign wealth fund, Temasek, is another player rumoured to have shown an interest.
Although Natural Dairy's offer was eventually turned down on the grounds that those involved were not of "good character", a new Chinese bidder has supposedly emerged.
Shanghai Pengxin has not yet attracted anything like the scrutiny, or the antipathy, that the previous bidders received. But that could change once it files its application with the Overseas Investment Office (OIO).
The brothers who founded the private company are said to have been born into poverty but have made sufficient money in recent years, mostly through property development in Shanghai, to put them in the top 50 of China's wealthiest billionaires.
Given the company's lack of experience in dairying, and the fact that some doomsayers have been predicting a spectacular crash in the Shanghai property market for some time now, there could be some nervousness about the bid. But in any case, the Government has already addressed the public's concerns about foreign ownership by introducing new criteria for the OIO to consider.
Overseas investors must apply for permission to buy sensitive land, which includes rural holdings of 5ha or more.
New rules, which came into effect on January 13, are intended to make it tougher for foreigners to control the entire rural supply chain, from farm to factory to distribution. They are also intended to prevent buyers gradually accumulating land until it reaches "a large scale" - suggested as anything larger than 10 times the average farm size of that type.
Anything that threatens New Zealand's "economic interests" will supposedly be frowned on. However, investors will be able to argue "mitigating factors", by showing they will allow New Zealanders "to oversee or participate in" any such investment.
Data collated by the OIO shows more than 160,000ha of agricultural land was approved for sale to overseas owners between July 2005 and December 2010. Some of this was vineyards changing hands, but most was in the sheep, beef and dairy sectors where Continental Europeans proved the most enthusiastic buyers, followed by Americans, Britons and Australians.
Among the largest sales by size was 30,000ha in Canterbury and Otago acquired by Italian company Reda International; 26,000ha in Otago which went to Israeli billionaire Shmuel Meitar; the 14,600ha Ryton Station in Canterbury, which was sold to a British buyer; and 14,000ha in Selwyn which went to an American.
The OIO says it is too early to say what the impact of the new rules is likely to be. However, some observers will be surprised if much changes, unless there is a further drop in rural property prices.
It is inevitable, they say, that more farmland will end up in overseas hands, simply because many New Zealanders can no longer afford to pay even the current asking prices.
Former banker and valuer Bruce Wills was one of several people who predicted back in 2006 that the rural land bubble was about to burst.
These days Wills is a farmer himself, and a spokesman for the fibre division of Federated Farmers. He believes what is about to happen next in farming is simply an extension of what has already happened in the corporate world.
"In the commercial world you have well-known examples like, say, Fisher & Paykel Appliances, who got themselves into positions with way too much debt," he notes. "To get out of a hole, they solved it pretty quickly by doing a debt for equity swap. We haven't yet done that sort of stuff in the rural sector to any great degree."
That will inevitably mean more sales to overseas owners, says Wills. Despite the fact that meat and wool prices have risen significantly over the past year, many sheep and beef farmers are still struggling, he says.
"Sadly, we've got to accept more international ownership of the land, because there's not a lot of guys out there with the capacity to go and borrow a whole lot of money."
And in the meantime, all farmers have to get more realistic about the way they run their businesses, he says.
"We've just got to have a better alignment between the rate of return from the businesses we're running on these assets, and the asset value. For too long we've had in many cases negative cashflows. People have counted on capital gains. So a whole new thinking has got to come in. I think successful farmers will focus on cash return rather than cash appreciation because otherwise, long-term, that's just property speculation, not farming."
Like Wills, Bruce Ross has seen it all before. A highly regarded economist, and a former head of Lincoln University and the Ministry of Agriculture, Ross is these days retired.
He is astonished that some banks are foreclosing on farmers who are up to date with their payments. "That seems extraordinary," he remarks.
But he is not surprised by the plunge in rural property values. "Farmers have had a habit in the past, and it's happened several times in my lifetime, of quickly capitalising in the value of farmland any gains in income. When we had the last burst of dairy prices, the farmland and livestock prices rose very rapidly and it was as if people thought those prices would last forever."
There is a certain irony, he agrees, that Chinese buyers are now eyeing key assets in the West, given that it was Chinese money that Americans were so eager to borrow in the first place.
"The western world was sloshing around with funds that had to be invested somewhere, and the banks were looking at ways to get rid of it. In the US there was not due diligence done on the mortgage lenders. That's what the sub-prime crisis was all about, and maybe an element of that crept in here as well."
He partly blames an "obsession" with deregulation over the past two decades, and notes that banks used to be given a "strong nod" about who they should lend their money to.
"Maybe they need to get back into a bit of that in terms of trying to restrict their lending on particular things."
While some farmers believe they are victims of international moves to require banks to boost their capital reserves, Ross insists such moves are necessary. It essentially means money is effectively taken out of circulation, he says.
In the US, the Federal Reserve is also printing money, known as quantitative easing, so its economy doesn't contract as a result. Unlike some economists, Ross is unconcerned this could fuel inflation.
"It seems to me if ever there was a time for quantitative easing, in the States in particular, that time is now. It's the least painful way to go. And they can sterilise any inflation that starts to break out by bringing forward the date at which the capital reserves have to be increased."
In fact, he wonders whether our own Reserve Bank should hint at similar moves here, if only to scare the carry traders who are usually blamed for keeping our dollar high. A lower exchange rate, he notes, would help boost farm incomes - although it could also make our farmland even more attractive to foreigners.
"People buying farmland, and buying PGG Wrightson and so on, that's injecting more overseas money into New Zealand, which is pushing the dollar up even further, so in a sense those remedies exacerbate the problem. But I don't think the way we're going is the right one. We're continually selling off the family silver. We've done it with an awful lot of our non-agricultural firms and I'd hate to see it happen with our agricultural firms and, in particular, farmland - which is a non-reproducible asset."
Land, he argues, is the asset on which New Zealand's economy was originally built, and - despite predictions that agriculture would become a sunset industry - still heavily relies.
"To see that going into foreign ownership does leave me feeling pretty uneasy."
Ross admits he is also saddened by the rise of corporate farming, largely because it discourages young people from entering the industry. Twenty years ago, the age of the average farmer was estimated at 46. The current average is believed to be 54.
However, corporatisation isn't necessarily a bad thing for the sector as a whole, he says.
"The fact that corporate farming is increasing could be an indication that savvy people with a lot of money believe it has a future. The leading edge farmers have often been individuals who could take a bit of a punt. But it is shutting people out and it is changing the whole structure of New Zealand agriculture, in a way."
David Tripe, who heads Massey University's Centre for Banking Studies, agrees that far more farms are ending up in far fewer hands. However, he isn't sure he agrees with Ross that banks should be given clearer guidelines about who to lend their money to. Such measures were already tried "somewhat unsuccessfully" in the 70s and early 80s, he says. One of the problems was that it discouraged banks from lending to people who didn't already have some kind of loan.
As for the exchange rate, Tripe agrees with others who have noted that it would probably be pointless for the Reserve Bank to intervene, as it doesn't have a large enough pool of reserves to be effective. However, he wouldn't be surprised if at some stage there was a "dramatic move" in the exchange rate, perhaps prompted by a downgrade in New Zealand's credit rating or some other unpredictable event.
"When it happens it often happens quite quickly. It happened quite dramatically in October 2008, and it happened in March/April of 2006, so maybe we'll see another burst in March/April of 2011."
So far, average farm prices have fallen by about 20 to 30 per cent, although in some parts of the country values have halved.
Tripe agrees with Wills they may fall further yet - partly because there are still many farms owned by South Canterbury Finance (SCF) and its associated companies that have yet to be put on the block.
Southland farm consultant Alastair Gibson believes the fallout from the receivership of SCF is likely to be significant. Some affected people are already trying to buy out their mortgages by replacing their loans with bank debt, he says. However, many were people who couldn't get loans from the banks in the first place.
"That was how [Allan Hubbard] operated, so he ended up with a lot of risk. What's going to happen there, especially the ones that aren't guaranteed, is only going to come out over the next few years."