COMMENT:

The NZX and FMA review of our capital markets is a welcome development, but is it too late?

The big question is whether it can reverse the inept decision making of the NZX board and management prior to 2017, before the current CEO Mark Peterson was appointed.

Bill Foster, CEO between 1989 and 2002, believed that the exchange should rely on brokers to grow its business.

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Mark Weldon, CEO from 2002 until 2012, invested in non-core assets outside New Zealand while Tim Bennett (2012-2016) expanded into the funds management sector.

These three leaders, who had a combined 27 years at the helm, were unable to generate any sustained momentum for the domestic bourse.

The New Zealand sharemarket would be on its death bed if it wasn't for the partial privatisation programme of the Key Government.

There is a strong argument that another Crown representative, Reserve Bank governor Adrian Orr, could be the NZX's next fairy godmother and have a far greater impact on the market than the NZX/FMA review.

This is because Orr's proposal to raise bank Tier 1 capital requirements from 8.5 per cent to 16.0 per cent will require the four largest banks to raise an estimated $15 billion of additional capital.

This could be achieved through a full or partial NZX listing and it seems that at least one major Australian-owned bank is seriously looking at this option.

This could be either BNZ, which will have to raise around $4.0b of new equity under Orr's proposals, or ASB, which will need an additional $3.4b of equity.

Maybe Key, who is now chairman of ANZ Bank New Zealand, could come to the NZX's rescue again with the listing of the country's largest bank.

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How does the NZX compare with sharemarkets in Ireland, Norway and Singapore, three countries with similar populations to New Zealand?

Singapore, with a population of 5.7 million, has the largest market of the four with 482 listed domestic companies and a total capitalisation of US$687.3b at the end of 2018 (see table).

This compares with 475 listed companies 15 years ago and market value of US$148.5b.

Banks and other financial groups represent just over 50 per cent of the total Singapore market value, followed by industrials representing 19.0 per cent of total capitalisation.

Banks play a major role on most sharemarkets, with the notable exception of the NZX.

Although the Singapore exchange has performed extremely well over the longer term, there are concerns that it is losing momentum.

Delistings have outnumbered listings in recent years as domestic companies have preferred to list on larger Asian markets, particularly Hong Kong.

The Singapore Exchange, which is listed on its own market, attempted to merge with the ASX in 2010 but was blocked by the Australian Labor Party.

Two years later, Singapore Exchange started merger talks with the London Stock Exchange but this came to nothing.

The exchange's latest annual report stated that its strategy was "to focus on cementing our position as a multi-asset exchange, while growing our international presence and widening our partnerships and networks".

Norway, with a population of 5.3 million, has the next largest exchange with 186 listed domestic companies and a total capitalisation of US$267.4b at the end of last year. This compares with 160 listed companies and a total market value of US$95.9b 15 years ago.

The three largest Oslo-listed companies are Equinor, an oil and gas company representing 30.9 per cent of the total market capitalisation; Telenor, the country's largest telecommunications company representing 12.4 per cent of total market value; and the banking and finance group DNB (11.2 per cent).

Oslo Bors, which is owned by several institutions and companies, is the last remaining independent stock exchange in Northern Europe.

However, this won't last long as late last year the Paris-based Euronext made an offer for the company at 145 Norwegian crowns per share (US$16.78 a share).

In January, New York-based Nasdaq offered 152 crowns but Euronext made a counter offer this week of 157 crowns a share.

The takeover of the Oslo exchange is almost certain to eventuate with the latest Euronext offer valuing the company at US$786m ($1,149m). This compares with the NZX's current market value of only $274m.

Ireland, with a population of 4.9 million, has the third largest exchange of the four with 43 listed domestic companies and a total capitalisation of US$110.2b at the end of 2018.

This compares with 55 listed companies 15 years ago and a total market value of US$85.1b.

The Dublin market took a hammering a decade ago when its two largest companies, Allied Irish Bank and Bank of Ireland, went bust during the GFC. The two banks are back on the sharemarket and are now ranked fourth and fifth in terms of value.

The three largest companies are building materials group CRH, dairy giant Kerry Group and Ryanair, the discount airline.

Last year, Euronext acquired 100 per cent of the Irish Stock Exchange for €137m ($226m) and it is now called Euronext Dublin.

New Zealand, which also has a population of 4.9 million, has the smallest exchange by market value of the four with 131 listed domestic companies and a total capitalisation of US$86.2b at the end of 2018.

This compares with 166 listed companies and a total market value of US$33.0b in December 2003.

The NZX has made some progress, mainly because of Crown privatisations, but it still lags well behind other exchanges because of its inertia in the 1990s and early 2000s.

IPOs are difficult to attract throughout the world, with the World Federation of Exchanges reporting that global IPOs were down 14.5 per cent in 2018.

However, the NZX is struggling more than most with only one IPO in 2018 compared with two in Dublin, six in Oslo and 12 in Singapore.

The NZX also lags well behind in trading volume with just US$25,986b worth of trades in 2018 compared with US$57,987b in Dublin, US$160,363b in Oslo and US$222,421b in Singapore.

Low trading volumes are a huge disadvantage to KiwiSaver fund managers wishing to invest in NZ companies through the NZX.

Euronext Dublin has the lowest number of listed companies in the group of four but it has partly compensated for this by having 4813 listed investment funds.

By comparison, the NZX had only 13 listed investment funds at the end of 2018 although it is making a big effort to attract new listings in this area.

The NZX/FMA media release stated: "New Zealand's capital markets have performed well in a number of areas (such as KiwiSaver and debt issuance), however equity listings have remained subdued, and [the] listed equity market is under developed relative to global peers".

It goes on to say that the review "aims to create a growth agenda which brings the capital markets ecosystem together to keep building on the active and vital contribution already being made (by S&P/NZX 50 companies)".

The NZX's main problems are the sale of our largest banks to Australian interests, the poor performance of our expanding dairy sector, particularly Fonterra, and a small broking industry that is more interested in expanding into private wealth and funds management than developing the domestic exchange.

A quick solution would be for Reserve Bank governor Orr to stick to his current Tier 1 proposals, which could encourage major Australian-owned banks to raise capital through a NZX listing.

Another option is for the NZX/FMA study to investigate the plethora of global stock exchange takeovers, mergers and alliances in recent years and determine whether they have been advantageous to all parties.

If they have, the NZX should consider establishing a much closer alliance with other exchanges, with the jilted Singapore Exchange being an obvious place to start.

- Brian Gaynor is a director of Milford Asset Management.