Don't fear Asia – it's Aussies who are taking over NZ

A new report details which countries have the highest level of foreign direct investment here.

New Zealanders have in recent times been repeatedly told they're racist. Yes, that means you.

TV3's The Vote said so, via a public vote – so really, you said so.

(Although one statistically-minded blogger dismisses such a self-selecting poll as "bogus".)

Embattled Race Relations Commissioner Dame Susan Devoy said so. She was able to shrug off the controversy surrounding her appointment and go on the front foot, saying Kiwis are embarrassed at the country's racism.

Historical examples have been dragged up, including the foreshore and seabed debate, the Crafar farms kerfuffle and perhaps even the government's decision to block the sale of Auckland International Airport shares to a Canadian pension fund.

Let's not start on the Treaty of Waitangi...

The Crafar farms is a good, business-related recent example.

The narrative goes that fears of a Chinese takeover prompted legal action after the government rubberstamped the sale of a bunch of dairy farms to a Chinese owner.

Some said it exhibited the country's inherent xenophobia.

Others agreed it wasn't a good look, at least, and might deter foreign investors.

History will show it has done nothing of the kind.

Investment pours in

Chinese whiteware giant Haier took over Fisher & Paykel Appliances late last year.

A Swedish pension fund paid about $60 million for eight Waikato dairy farms formerly owned by NBR Rich Lister Graeme Hart.

And two Chinese companies are spending more than $400 million combined to build two dairy factories in this country.

On the sharemarket, international institutions scooped 42% of Fonterra's $525 million trading among farmers' units.

Some big dairy players, including Synlait, Miraka and Open Country, are at least partly foreign-owned.

New Zealand dairy is big business and foreigners want a slice.

Recent company takeovers have made the headlines, perhaps fuelling a perception of a Chinese or Asian-led takeover of New Zealand farms and land.

A New Zealand Initiative report, New Zealand's Global Links, attempts to bring some facts to the debate.

Statistical battering ram

The report, penned by Capital Economics' Bryce Wilkinson, is a wide-ranging piece of work which aims to assemble as much information about foreign ownership, cross-border flows and capital stocks as it can in one document.

As Dr Wilkinson said in Friday's National Business Review print edition, the report explains the major interrelationships between national savings, current account deficits, investment and indebtedness and puts the latest statistics into a historical context.

More succinctly, NBR's editorial says it takes a statistical battering ram to widely-held myths.

Dr Wilkinson's finding on the threat of Asian takeover? It's tosh.

As at March 31 2012, foreign investment in New Zealand was estimated at $304.1 billion, with Australians owning 55.8%.

That's up from 31.5% at March 31, 2001.

The share of FDI stock owned by Japan is ASEAN countries – Association of Southeast Asian Nations – was 3.1% in 2012, compared to 1.9% in 2001.

"One could hardly describe the latter as a takeover bid for New Zealand," the report says.

Australian domination of foreign direct investment should come as no surprise if you consider the financial services companies, including banks and insurance companies, wholly or partially owned by companies across the ditch.

Net importer of FDI

Dr Wilkinson notes the stock of FDI in New Zealand peaked in 1998-99 at more than 60% of GDP, and was below 50% in 2011-12.

Outwardly, 2012 figures for New Zealand's foreign direct investment show 53% was invested in Australia, 79% in all OECD member countries and 9.2% in ASEAN countries.

Total New Zealand investments abroad as at March 31 2012 was estimated at $158.5 billion.

That makes New Zealand's net international investment position at minus $145.6 billion, or 71.9% of GDP, up from 66.8% of GDP in March 2002.

A 2007 study of OECD countries shows only the Slovak Republic, Ireland and Portugal were greater net importers of foreign direct investment than New Zealand.

Dr Wilkinson's report says: "The notion to be resisted is that an ideal state would be one in whcih every country was in balance on this measure.

"There is nothing wrong with some countries being net exporters and other net importers of direct investment."

As to foreign ownership of land, New Zealand's Global Links says two estimates agree that foreign-owned land totals more than one million hectares, or about 4% of New Zealand's total land area.

Nevertheless, Overseas Investment Office reports may exaggerate the net land area in foreign hands, the report says, because it is not advised if the land is bought back by a New Zealander.

Free movement of capital

New Zealand was heavily dependent on international capital for development in its colonial days.

It has depended on international capital ever since, the report says, although the degree has varied substantially.

In the report's introduction, NZI executive director Dr Oliver Hartwich says economists typically support the free movement of trade and capital.

If people voluntarily agree to trade with one another, the economic theory goes, they should be allowed to do so.

The difficulty, however, is bringing the theory into the real world, populated by real people with strongly-held opinions and prejudices.

Dr Hartwich says large parts of the public still harbour negative feelings and suspicions about dealing with foreigners in trade and investments.

Some would say perception creates reality – if people think there's an Asian takeover, there is.

But at least when people are presented with such ignorant views they can now fight back with a few facts.

dwilliams@nbr.co.nz

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