Foreign Investment in Land is Different

The recent debate over foreign ownership is being influenced by misunderstandings. In particular, there is confusion about the differences between investing in land and investing in other assets.

There is no doubt that New Zealand agribusiness needs foreign investors in processing and marketing. It would be great if it were not necessary, but it is. Unfortunately, Kiwis do not have the money to make these investments themselves. We have seen this in the dairy industry with NZ Dairies at Waimate, and with Synlait in Mid Canterbuy We have seen it in the agribusiness servicing sector with PGG Wrightson. We have also seen it in the meat industry, with Silver Fern Farms struggling to find the capital they need, and in all likelihood they too will have to go overseas for equity capital. In general, this foreign capital allows investment in new technology and also in market development that would not otherwise occur. Of course not all of these investments are successful, but that is the nature of business.

In contrast, foreign investment in land does not typically lead to new things being done. Overseas investors of farm land will typically do the same as the Kiwis, although managed from afar. A risk with this type of investment is that it pushes up land prices and crowds out Kiwi farmers.

Land is special and ownership entails special responsibilities of care and nurture. People sometimes raise an eyebrow in surprise when I say that land can never be owned in the way that other assets are owned. But when I point out that a person is free to do whatever they like with an asset such as a car or computer, including destroying that asset if they wish, then the realisation dawns. Most people do intuitively understand that, in contrast, if you damage land you will end up in the courts. What this means is that so called ‘ownership’ of land gives ‘use rights’, but also lots of responsibilities. At least some of us think those responsibilities are a lot easier to enforce if the owners actually live here in New Zealand.

In recent days I have heard senior politicians musing about whether the current interest in our land by foreigners is a short term thing of passing, or is it long term. I can assure them that the interest by foreigners in buying our land can only increase if it is legal for them to do so. Therefore, clarity over the legal situation is important. It would be much better if the rules were clear cut, rather than leaving it to the case by case judgement of a Foreign Investment Board.

The reason foreigners want to buy our land relates to the profits they can make. In particular, it is easy for a foreign owned firm to structure itself so it pays either zero or minimal income tax on New Zealand farming operations. The way it does this is to load up the New Zealand subsidiary with debt from another company that is also linked to the parent. Existing rules allow interest on debt up to 75% of total NZ assets to be tax deductable under what is known as ‘thin capitalisation’ rules. Next year the allowable limit drops to 60%. Even at 60%, it is possible to soak up all of the profit from either a dairy or sheep farm and pay no tax. The interest is then remitted to an offshore country, and in all likelihood that will be to a ‘tax haven’ country.

In addition, New Zealand effectively has no capital gains tax, unlike other countries such as the USA and Australia. This can be another big attraction for foreign investors in our land. Whether or not we should have a capital gains tax is another matter which I will not enter into here. There are pluses and minuses to that one. But I do make the point that it is the absence of a capital gains tax that is helping to make our land so attractive to foreigners.

I have previously written that most of our forest lands are already owned by foreigners, and that much of our vineyards are also foreign owned. In the past, dairy farms were not particularly attractive, because ‘hands-on’ management was important. But that is all changing, and already it is possible to sit in a far off land and monitor milk production on a daily basis. It is also becoming increasingly easy to monitor pastures from afar.

So what I say as clearly as possible is that we need to sort out our policies around land ownership right now. In the process of doing so, we also have to make sure that we don’t cut off the foreign investment that we need in processing and marketing.


About Keith Woodford

Keith Woodford is an independent consultant, based in New Zealand, who works internationally on agri-food systems and rural development projects. He holds honorary positions as Professor of Agri-Food Systems at Lincoln University, New Zealand, and as Senior Research Fellow at the Contemporary China Research Centre at Victoria University, Wellington.
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5 Responses to Foreign Investment in Land is Different

  1. Red Rosa says:

    This certainly is an emotional topic, but the link below has some sobering thoughts.

    It would be useful to study overseas policies on land ownership, and their effects. After all, NZ investment in other countries’ farms is not seen here as damaging them.

    The recent NZ investment in US dairying has been widely publicized, and appears almost wholly beneficial. But land ownership policy varies widely among the US states, so the Missouri deals may not be possible in for instance Iowa.

    Also NZ investment in Uruguay dairying, though no doubt unprofitable to date, can hardly have damaged Uruguay.

    So maybe sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander?

    Interestingly, in the UK there have always been few if any limits to farm land purchase. This has enabled the impoverished landed gentry to marry (or sell to) wealthy Americans, who were in a position to give their tenants a much better deal!

    • Keith Woodford says:

      Perhaps a key issue is whether investment in land by non-resident foreigners leads to new development that would not otherwise occur. Also, whether we would be more comfortable with the care of NZ land being in the hands of those who live here. There is no doubt that NZ is highly dependent on foreign capital and in the wider economy there is therefore no sensible alternative. But perhaps land is different. As for the Missouri operations, I believe one has failed and the jury may still be out on at least one of the others. As for Uruguay,it is my understanding that the Government there has made a considerable investment in electricity infrastructure and possibly roads to service NZFSU farms. Only time will tell whether that was a good investment. In both of those cases the real lessons might relate to the nature of the investment (i.e the appropriateness of the technology) rather than the source of the funds.

  2. Daniel Harrigan says:

    Hey Keith, I have a quick question. What is it called when I want to purchase land in a foreign country. I think I have to fill out some form(s) 3520? or 3520-a

    BUT my main question is, Someone told me that the whole process of buying land in a foreign nation has a specific name. Do you know what it is, or possibaly could be?

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