Are we placing too much reliance on China? Fran O'Sullivan finds the boardrooms are split on the issue

The gloss has come off the China market following recent volatility on Chinese stock exchanges and major commodity slumps which have seen New Zealand's dairy export returns dramatically slashed.

The Asian Growth Story is still compelling -- with China playing a major role as the regional growth driver. Tourism receipts from China are still buoyant and the services trade is promising. Beijing is still reporting annual growth rates at 7 per cent of GDP.

Chief executives in the Mood of the Boardroom survey were evenly divided on the question of whether New Zealand is placing too much reliance on the China market with 42 per cent saying Yes, and, 41 per cent saying No.

Minter Ellison chairman Cathy Quinn responded. "Are we placing too much reliance on China or has New Zealand just responded to an opportunity that emerged with a global superpower that provided great opportunity?


"I think NZ responded to an opportunity. Businesses are rational and will also look to diversify risk to the extent they can practically do so."

Craig Stobo was bullish. Ticking off the metrics he noted: 1.35 billion population out of 7 billion global population, the second largest economy in the world, the fastest growing economy in the world, their first FTA was with NZ ... "we are not doing enough!!"

Spark NZ chief executive Simon Moutter underlined that China and other Asian growth economies are vital for New Zealand interests as a small Asia Pacific based trading nation. "While there is currently some challenges in some markets, it is important that we take a long game view and look for enduring relationships that are consistent, long-term and two-way."

Chiefs of leading business organisations which have more diverse memberships than corporates took a wide view. "This is as always, a game of "and"," said BusinessNZ CEO Phil O'Reilly. "We need to do more in China but we need to make sure that as our economy diversifies we get more sold elsewhere. A European Union-New Zealand free trade agreement FTA will help. High tech to the UK anyone?"

Auckland Chamber of Commerce CEO Michael Barnett noted, "we have a number of free trade agreements that have not been well exploited and business should be encouraged to have more diverse export strategies with those other markets."

Others expressed caution about being "too optimistic about China, and as a result not preparing any "Plan Bs". " This is a risk that we must manage -- over-reliance can translate to leverage being applied against us on other matters in effect using commercial leverage to drive positions on foreign policy, immigration, capital flows, ownership of key assets and so it goes on", cautioned a professional firm boss.

There have been recent grumblings by foreign investors in China that the regulatory settings were making it more difficult for foreign companies to compete. Just 21 per cent of CEOs agreed with the proposition. The vast majority -- 67 per cent, were unsure.

Deloitte chief executive Thomas Pippos observed, "China understands the value its market has on the global economic scene and choreographs its actions accordingly looking to maximise its own national welfare -- its acting totally rationally and businesses need to enter that market with their eyes wide open."


Others pointed out that China was not a market for the faint-hearted." There are many hidden barriers to operating freely in that economy and we need to work to encourage China to progressively remove these barriers.

This will improve the efficiency of their economy and benefit Chinese consumers. Of course China is not alone in this regard," said an infrastructure boss.

Nearly 50 per cent of chief executives were also unsure about whether New Zealand was ready for the impact of China opening up its capital account.

Former Reserve Bank Governor Don Brash -- now chair of the NZ operations of the world's largest bank ICBC -- said New Zealanders have an inherent and unhealthy fear of foreign investment in general and foreign investment from China in particular. "Successive governments have done a poor job of explaining the benefits of foreign investment to New Zealanders.

"China still takes less than half as much of our exports as was the case when we were heavily dependent on the UK market, though that probably understates the importance of China to our prosperity given our additional indirect dependence on China via our dependence on the Australian market."

An agribusiness chief with significant Chinese ties said the only downside to foreign direct investment is that it comes in too fast to be used usefully. NZ needs to think through what percentage of GDP it wants as foreign direct investment each year and then set policy accordingly."

There were cautionary notes.

Local Government Funding Agency chairman Craig Stobo said, "I don't think global markets are ready for the size and impact of the genie coming out of that bottle."

"NZ could be swamped by the tsunami, said professional director and company chair Dame Alison Paterson. "The Chinese people like hard assets like property, jade [our greenstone."

"This is hugely worrying for us -- already Kiwis are competing and there are vast numbers of new wealthy investors ready to take advantage of beautiful NZ," said a health sector CEO. "We have to be sure that investing here does not come at the price of improving life for New Zealanders who live here and hold residency."