Fran O’Sullivan: Giant Aussie predator AustralianSuper should be sent packing

OPINION:

If the foreign fund which has launched a play to buy Infratil was from China — rather than Australia — there would already be hell to pay about dastardly predators taking advantage of the Covid-19 economic environment to snap up undervalued NZ assets.

AustralianSuper’s move needs to be looked at as more than a pure market play.

Sure, it is hostile to Infratil’s interests.

But there is also a national interest issue at play here.

Should a major Australian fund be allowed to gain the ability to control some key NZ infrastructure without some push-back from NZ Inc?

Wouldn’t the company be better off in NZ hands anyway — perhaps even via the NZ Super Fund taking a blocking stake — thus continuing to contribute to the future financial welfare of New Zealanders rather than Australians?

Or should this ultimately be punted up to Finance Minister Grant Robertson for a political decision?

It’s deeply ironic that it should be an Australian fund to emerge as the biggest predatorcurrently stalking a major NZX-listed company.

Earlier this year, Australian Treasurer Josh Frydenberg introduced a temporary clampdown on foreign investment in his country to prevent international raids on Australian assets and protect the national interest during the coronavirus pandemic.

The sentiment was widespread.

Writing in The Guardian this April, former British diplomat John Dobson claimed that China’s President Xi Jinping was preparing to exploit the paralysis created by the coronavirus, “the virus which China itself unleashed around the world”.

“The Chinese economy is reported to be up and running again, while other countries battle to hold back the tide of illness, death and economic destruction,” said Dobson.

“Ironically, Beijing is set to be the big winner from the pandemic which itself created … [with] the growing potential for China to exploit, in a sinister way, commercial opportunities provided by the current coronavirus crisis.”

Other governments — including our own — also changed laws to put politicians in the box seat when it comes to deciding whether to allow choice assets to be acquired by offshore interests at this time.

As the Treasury put it on May 13, New Zealand’s economy has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, placing businesses under pressure, threatening the viability of some critical sectors and causing the value of many businesses to fall.

“This increases the opportunity for overseas persons to invest in, or acquire distressed New Zealand assets, which in some cases may not be consistent with New Zealand’s national interest.”

From a national interest perspective, this causes a conundrum. It’s pertinent also that Cabinet Minister David Parker, who shepherded the tightening of the foreign investment regime earlier this year, was keen for New Zealand to have more ownership control of local infrastructure assets.

Infratil founder Lloyd Morrison knew exactly where to press the right buttons in the Wellington beltway to preserve New Zealand’s (and his) commercial interests.

Morrison died in Seattle from leukaemia in 2012.

But it’s a fair bet that Infratil CEO Marko Bogoievski — and the well-connected executives from Morrison & Co which holds the management contract for the listed infrastructure investor — will be working their contacts overtime to try and beat off the approach from AustralianSuper to acquire the company via a scheme of arrangement at a headline price of $A6.80 ($7.43) a share.

The AustralianSuper move, as well as beinghostile to the interests of Infratil’s managers, also raises anationalistic issue. It offends against New Zealand’s interest in having control of its own infrastructure.

In the NZ Super Fund’s absence, the Government’s best brains could develop a state-owned “private equity type” fund to take “shares” in prime Kiwi companies to stop them being scooped up by foreign predators at prices depressed by the Covid-19 crisis.

There is a fundamental question to address.

That is how many “New Zealand” companies will be left in control of their own future as the effect of the coronavirus crisis continues to wreak damage to the NZ economy and the looming global recession bites hard.

The NZ Super Fund could have done something like this. To a degree it has done, with its co-investments with Infratil in infrastructure assets. But its risk appetite is governed by the need to grow revenue to smooth future superannuation costs.

If Infratil disappears from the NZX without a fight, what company is next? Fletcher Building? Tourism Holdings? The list goes on.

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