09 May WHEN POLITICS TRUMPS CASH
Money talks but sometimes, politics can talk a lot louder.
The controversial decision by the Federal Government to reject a $370 million bid from China’s Dakang group for the agricultural assets of S Kidman & Co is a case in point.
At face value, the decision seems inconsistent coming just days after a US clothing conglomerate, Hanes, launched a bid worth $1.1 billion for Pacific Brands, the company behind some of Australia’s best known apparel labels. That’s a lot of money for your Bonds undies, which will now be owned by Americans – and yet there was little negative reaction from our elected representatives.
Rejecting the Dakang bid also runs counter to the Government’s often stated support for foreign investment and its policy of encouraging even closer business and economic relations with China.
However, seen from Canberra, the Kidman decision made sense, politically at least.
The sale of Australia’s largest landholder – almost 11 million hectares of cattle stations – had turned into a huge negative issue for both Coalition parties but especially so for the Nationals’ traditional rural base, which feels, rightly or wrongly, that we should “stop selling off the farm”.
With a federal election on July 2 – and one that is likely to be much closer than many expected just a few months ago – it was a no-brainer.
But the decision also highlights an important consideration for overseas investors: while you do need to spend time and effort making sure you get your regulatory argument and business rationale right, you also need to prosecute your case in the public arena.
This is not an uncommon error for overseas investors looking at Australian assets, especially investors from Asia, some of whom believe the right price and the right business connections will be enough to get them over the line.
And most times, it is.
But investing in sensitive assets such as farms, cattle stations, food companies and even urban properties, carries its own political sensitivities and risks, in particular when the buyer is relatively unknown.
The fact is that politics can derail even the most sensible and attractive of offers – and politics is often driven as much by media coverage as by policy considerations.
Proactively and openly engaging with media can be challenging and uncomfortable for overseas investors who’d rather keep a low profile and concentrate on what they see as the task at hand. Things can and do go wrong.
But in cases involving politically-charged, sensitive assets, overseas investors will need increasingly to step up and humbly but persistently promote their case, explain their rationale and be transparent about their intentions.
At the very least, they will need to reassure a sceptical public (and the politicians), that they know what they are doing – and that they have a long term commitment to Australia.