Foreign investors want buying rules simplified by new parliament

Foreign investors, vendors hurt by Coalition farmland sale rules


Agribusiness
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Critics say foreign investors and farmers selling their land are getting an expensive, raw deal from Canberra.

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Rural property marketers say foreign investors frequently get a raw deal from regulators when they buy into Australian agriculture, and the deal can be just as frustrating for farmers trying to sell.

Big money investors from overseas and those representing them in the local market are hoping for what they consider a sensible re-alignment of some of the rules and fees imposed on offshore bidders by Canberra if Labor wins government at the May 18 federal election.

High on their list of concerns is the rule introduced last year requiring a 30-day national advertising campaign for any rural land worth more than $15 million.

Selling agents insist the ruling, which was intended to give Australian residents, including neighbours, fair warning of a potential buying opportunity, has actually disadvantaged many farmland vendors and done little to entice more local competition against foreign bidders.

We've seen cases of horticulture and beef producers who found their supply contracts with retailers terminated after `for sale' ads hit the newspapers, - Malcolm Brennan, King and Wood Mallesons

They say established farm families are forced to prematurely publicise an intention to sell, exposing themselves to community speculation and even criticism for considering big offers from large local or offshore investors.

Advertising a farm's potential sale could also come at a significant financial cost, said special counsel with multinational law firm, King and Wood Mallesons, Malcolm Brennan.

"We've seen cases of horticulture and beef producers who found their supply contracts with retailers terminated after `for sale' ads hit the newspapers," he said.

"The advertising creates nervousness about the reliability of supply arrangements being put at risk by a possible ownership change."

Maintaining staff and service providers such as packing contractors also became harder once word got out the business was for sale, possibly to an overseas buyer.

Meanwhile, critics of the advertising rule have also argued foreign investment funds, or overseas-based agribusinesses and high wealth individuals often still had bigger wallets or more corporate leverage to help them win the deal ahead of a hopeful neighbour or local buying syndicate, regardless of how much domestic interest emerged.

They believed the task of generating market competition should be left to the discretion of the vendor and a good selling agent "without turning a private sale decision into a public circus".

It remained in the best interests of agents and vendors to get the highest possible price, regardless of whether the money came via overseas investment contacts or domestically.

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The advertising rule was one of many changes which have rubbed raw with property marketers and some agribusiness investors since a raft of regulations to monitor foreign investment in farmland and water resources started rolling out in 2015.

The price threshold point at which foreign buyers must gain Canberra's approval for farmland purchases fell from $252m to just $15m, while offshore investors spending more than $57m in agribusiness also need government approval to buy.

Such regulations have been blamed for making agricultural investment complex and even undermining the confidence of local superannuation funds, given Australian groups often pooled their own funds with investments and farmland market experience offered by international investors.

Danny Thomas

Danny Thomas

Application fees involved for foreign buyers have attracted criticism, too, as they generated more than $300 million for the government between 2015-16 and 2017-18.

At the same time the assessment services provided by the Foreign Investment Review Board were estimated to have cost less than $15m a year to provide.

Other criticisms included the uncertainty and time taken to grant FIRB approvals, and the discriminatory nature of the application thresholds which are far less strict for US, New Zealand and Chilean investors thanks to long standing free trade deals which protected them from the recent rules.

NZ has experienced a slowdown in international investment activity because of they've made life more difficult in recent years for those investing in agriculture. - Danny Thomas, CBRE

CBRE Agribusiness regional director, Danny Thomas, believed Australia had become too arrogant and slow when dealing with foreign investors who may easily be attracted to South America, or elsewhere instead.

"Our falling exchange rate helps keep us attractive, but if other parts of the world become cheaper buying we'll certainly lose some of our appeal," he said.

"NZ has experienced a slowdown in international investment activity because of they've made life more difficult in recent years for those investing in agriculture."

Tony Mahar

Tony Mahar

CBRE was at the heart of negotiations for last month's $85m sale of about 200,000 hectares of Western Australian cropping and sheep country, plus machinery and livestock, owned by prominent machinery dealer, John Nicoletti and nine neighbours.

The properties in the Merredin, Mukinbudin, Bullfinch and Southern Cross districts sold to Saudi Agricultural Investment Company (SALIC), but not before the 30-day FIRB approval process was extended seven times.

Mr Nicoletti said six months of delay were "absolutely painful" leaving him and up to 50 farm sector workers in limbo after he and other landholders had spent a lot of money, time and detailed preparation work to get the buyers on board.

Foreign investment topics have not been a hot button concern for a while. - Tony Mahar, National Farmers Federation

However, while frustrations may be real, the Coalition government's foreign investment regulations did not bother most farmers, according to the National Farmers Federation.

NFF chief executive officer, Tony Mahar, said foreign investment issues barely registered at all with farmer representative groups in the past six months - unlike similar themes such as free trade agreements or access to foreign workers.

"There are always foreign investment topics talked about in agriculture, but it hasn't been a hot button concern for a while," he said.

Mike Clifton

Mike Clifton

"Drought, bushfires and Queensland floods have generally taken priority for most farmers to worry about."

Colliers International's transaction services director, Mike Clifton, said while issues like the 30-day advertising rule slowed the selling process, he saw no indication of a general decline in overseas buying interest in Australian farmland.

Corporates understand the rules and procedures they must work with and accept them - Mike Clifton, Colliers International

Chinese inquiry had declined 50 per cent in the past two years for various reasons, but interest from Europe, North America and elsewhere in Asia was growing.

Despite some negative sentiment about foreign buyers taking up big rural holdings, there was widespread acceptance of the need for foreign capital in agriculture.

"Corporates understand the rules and procedures they must work with and accept them, but if we push for changes we need to be careful about what we wish for," he said.

"I think most investors would be more uneasy about a change of government leading to new environmental and water management demands, or modified tax laws, than any need to tinker with our foreign buyer rules."

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The story Foreign investors want buying rules simplified by new parliament first appeared on Farm Online.

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