An Asia-Pacific agribusiness expert says Australia and New Zealand need a coordinated and more decisive approach to foreign investment if they are to attract more overseas capital to the region.
Mixed messages can raise doubt and drive investment to other parts of the world, according to Greg Quinn, director and Asia-Pacific team leader for agriculture advisory firm PPB Advisory.
It has been almost one year since Australia’s largest private landholding, the Kidman cattle empire, went on the market.
The company was founded by Sir Sidney Kidman in 1899 and has been in the hands of his family members for more than 100 years.
Foreign bidders had to rework their offers after Treasurer Scott Morrison announced in November last year he would block the sale of S Kidman and Co to any sole overseas buyer.
Mr Quinn said Australia’s Foreign Investment Review Board (FIRB) and New Zealand’s Overseas Investment Office (OIO) had conflicting processes for assessing whether foreign bids for farmland were in the national interest.
“In New Zealand they view it as a positive test, so effectively they ask ‘will this investment into New Zealand farmland or agribusinesses have a positive impact on the country?’,” Mr Quinn said.
“Australia has a negative test essentially saying ‘will this investment have a negative impact on the national interest?'”
Mr Quinn — who has helped broker deals with foreign companies investing in Australian and New Zealand agribusinesses — pointed to last year’s Kidman ruling as an example.
“The ruling on that said given the [Woomera] protection zone within the Anna Creek Station, that would have a potential negative impact on the national interest,” Mr Quinn said.
He compared that with a recent decision by the New Zealand Government to reject a foreign bid for a well-established beef and sheep station, Lochinvar, on the country’s North Island.
“They couldn’t see sufficient evidence that investment coming in would have a positive impact,” he said.
Key bidder in Kidman cattle sale moves to allay concerns about foreign investment
Mr Quinn said a more standardised approach by both countries would help to attract more investors who are interested in trans-Tasman acquisitions.
“It’s providing mixed messages in terms of the region,” he said.
“A lot of global foreign investors, whether from the US, North America, Europe, or even Asia and China, just see Australia and New Zealand as [one] region.
“Having two different messages and two different systems can create doubt over them about where they invest and how they invest.”
‘We can’t let sales drag on’
Mr Quinn also said the time it took for both countries to assess bids could be problematic for overseas investors.
“Governments in New Zealand and Australia need to be a bit more decisive around their decision making process,” he said.
Mr Quinn said the Kidman sale process started in April last year and was ongoing. Controversial bids for New Zealand farmland by foreign investors has taken even longer to assess.
“They can’t let things continue to drag on for three to six to 18 months because that creates big issues for the bidding parties, and [creates] doubts about whether they will head into due diligence in the future and spend costs,” he said.
“[It also creates issues for] vendors who get left in limbo, not knowing whether they have an asset to sell at that current value, and then trying to re-take that to market is going to have significant implications.
“So the decision-making process needs to become a lot more decisive and there needs to be a lot more clear messaging around that as well.”
High-profile sales aside, Mr Quinn said his company’s dealing with the FIRB were positive.
“With the majority of the transaction’s we’ve ever worked on, on the buy side or sell side, the decisions are being in 30 to 42 days, so it is quite a good system we’re dealing with,” he said.
“We are not seeing too much knocked back or too many questions asked, it just comes down to a bit more transparency and communication and very clear messaging, and I think that over time it will work quite well.”