When it comes to courting investment from Asia - or anywhere else - we should be aiming to get the best, not the most.
When foreign investors take up a substantial stake in a New Zealand company, the implications go beyond the money that enters the country. Potentially, the foreign investor brings skills, connections and technological expertise that raise productivity and boost higher value-added exports. Potentially. Getting foreign investment right means recognising that it doesn't always turn out this way. Mergers and acquisitions can be painful and messy, sometimes ending in outright failure. There's nothing magical about a foreign investor that will ensure a good outcome.
But there is a potential payoff and it's worth knowing what it looks like. Earlier this year colleagues at the University of Auckland Business School wrote a report on investment from Asia for the Asia New Zealand Foundation. We profiled a diverse set of New Zealand-based companies in which investors from Asia, either migrant investors or foreign investors, had taken substantial roles. In some cases the investment resulted in an entirely new business venture being created, resulting in jobs that would otherwise not exist. Addiction Pet Food, for example, is an export-focused natural pet food venture with a factory in Te Puke. That means forty or so employees in Te Puke working for a company that would not exist if a young Singaporean vet hadn't gotten inspired by the New Zealand story and set up his business here.
Or take Fitzroy Engineering, established in New Plymouth in the 1950s and part of Malaysia's Dialog Group since 2011. Being part of Dialog's much larger corporate network has brought added depth, financial resources and international connections to the New Plymouth-based company that employs around 400 people in New Zealand.
Kiwi icon Griffin's gained access to the Southeast Asian local market expertise and distributional links of its Philippines-based parent company when it was acquired in 2014. Since then it has upgraded its export strategy in Southeast Asia, with a better understanding of the specific tastes and customer needs of the Southeast Asian consumer.
Other companies profiled in our report have business models and services that create positive spill-overs for other New Zealand companies, helping them to generate links with Asian markets and resources, whether through Latipay's financial payment gateway services or software company Augen's Kiwi Connection in Vietnam.
These companies, along with many others, develop the skills, people-to-people connections and understanding that will allow New Zealand to deepen our investment and export links with the world's fastest-growing economic region.
So why the widespread suspicion of foreign investors, perhaps especially the new wave of investment from Asia? Although there are major gaps in the statistical record, it is clear that investors from China and Southeast Asia are becoming more important for New Zealand. Most of our foreign-owned assets, however, are still accounted for by investors from Australia, North America, Europe and Japan. While still modest in the overall picture, investment from China in particular is growing and is newly visible.
When we presented our report's findings to business audiences around New Zealand, many people commented that Chinese investors were attracting the same concern that Japanese investment aroused when Japan became a major international investor from the second half of the 1980s. Many Japanese-invested companies in New Zealand (Rinnai NZ and ANZCO Foods were featured in our report) have shown how the patient, long-term view of the Japanese investor has paid off in terms of jobs, exports and expanded opportunities for New Zealand.
The recent wave of outward investment from China looks a bit different. Many acquisitions are motivated by the desire to acquire a recognised brand, managerial expertise or technological knowhow - exemplified close to home in acquisitions of PGG Wrightson and Fisher and Paykel. And of course, much outward investment from China targets natural resources and food production capacity.
For many New Zealanders, it is acquisitions of New Zealand land and that have proved sensitive. Investors from China make up a small proportion of foreign purchases of rural land, suggesting that some of the sensitivity is due to sheer lack of familiarity. But foreign land purchases are sensitive in almost every country around the world. That is a political reality that won't go away whoever wins the election. When it comes to land purchases, investors have to work harder to show that they bring complementary resources that will enhance value-added exports, rather than being simple resource extraction enterprises.