The sale of Synlait farms to a Chinese controlled company brought the usual xenophobic response.
However, OIO approval for the sale of three North Otago farms to Cragimore Investments went unremarked.
That adds credence to the belief that at least some of the opposition is racially motivated.
Whatever, the motivation, a lot of it is based on the erroneous belief that we’re in danger of becoming tenants in our own country when in fact only 2% of land is foreign owned.
The sale of Synlait Farms to a Chinese-controlled buyer is part of a process ensuring New Zealand grows the right products to meet world demand, NZ Institute of Economic Research (NZIER) economist Chris Nixon says.
“That’s the fundamental point – land must reflect world prices because that’s how we decide what to grow on the type of land we’ve got,” Nixon said.
NZIER didn’t comment on the merits of individual deals but the trend was important for NZ to be a successful part of an international world, he said.
Nixon, who has written research papers on foreign direct investment, said the level of overseas ownership of land in this country was low by world standards and wasn’t growing quickly.
“We’ve missed out really. The land is seen as relatively expensive and we are a long way from world markets.
“The deals we see are high profile but they are small and it tends to be spiky – it happens now and then.”
NZIER studies showed less than 2% of NZ land was owned by foreigners. The exact level of farmland ownership by foreigners wasn’t known but it would be within that range, Nixon said.
Most of the acreage was expected to be in forestry.
Less than 2% is a very small amount and that inwards investment brings benefits.
Waikato University professor of agri-business Jacqueline Rowarth said overseas investment helped maintain farm values and protect the high debt levels held in the dairy sector.
Restricting sales would make many current farmers “green round the gills” because of the impact on their farm values and debt they had taken on.
“Treasury says we haven’t got enough money coming in as a country to make investments and the Reserve Bank says that dairying debt is a major issue if things go wrong.
“Without the interest shown by overseas buyers the value of farms would drop.” . . .
The benefits aren’t just to those who sell the land.
SFL will invest $20 million to develop the Synlait farms and Pengxin is spending about $18m on development in the North Island.
The multiplier effect of that level of investment in infrastructure and services in a regional economy meant everyone would benefit, Rowarth said.
The proof was in the Southland economy, which was booming because of dairy conversions. Dairy investment involved huge expenditure.
Rowarth also counters the myth that foreign owners compete unfairly with locals.
While overseas investment would maintain farm values, it wasn’t pushing prices out of the reach of New Zealanders as long as milk prices and operating costs were at levels to make the farm business profitable, she said. . . .
While foreign direct investment was important for the economy, it was also important for New Zealanders to capture the foreign trade benefits through ownership of the processing and marketing companies, Rowarth said.
“I’m less worried about the foreign ownership of land than I am about the companies, because that is where the brands and the value is.
“We’ve got companies like (PGG) Wrightson and now Synlait Milk majority overseas owned and the questions are where are the profits going? Are they coming back to NZ?”
It’s not the profits but the loss of intellectual property a company like PGGW has in seed development which might be of concern. But there’s not the emotional attachment to IP the way there is to land.
Synlait Milk had said it was not paying dividends but would invest in its assets and the risk was NZ investors would sell out if they weren’t getting an income from it.
Nixon has also noted greater reaction to farm acquisition than to foreigners buying agri-businesses, saying that was surprising when agri-business had more impact on the daily lives of New Zealanders.
Having open markets that encouraged overseas investment was important for credit rating agencies, he said.
Without that NZ would face greater interest costs on overseas borrowing.
Higher interest rates, and the inevitable increase in the value of our dollar that would follow, would be a very high cost for banning sales to overseas interests when such a small amount of land is owned by foreigners.