Hooton on Privatisation

Matthew Hooton in NBR points out that in Government Trevor Mallard pushed for private sector investment in some SOEs and/or their subsidiaries. Mallard was right to do so then, and it is still right today. Extracts:

The state manages an SOE portfolio with total assets of $47 billion, more than the market capitalisation of the NZX 50.

Nothing about the portfolio is rational, consisting simply of the leftovers from the large trade-sales of the 1980s and 1990s. Alongside overinvestment in sunset industries, like regional rail and post, sit electricity companies and odds and bobs including a mining company, a manufacturer of pest management products, 371,000 hectares of corporate farms and an educational materials publishing house.

And it is ridicolous to say that this must be frozen in stone for all time.

Mr Mallard hoped that some growth could be funded off SOEs’ own balance sheets but he was also keen for them to partner with the private sector to develop new subsidiaries, which would be listed on the NZX. This, he argued, would provide depth to our capital markets and improve the transparency of the SOEs.
Mr Mallard was clear he was not interested in the type of wholesale privatisations that occurred when Labour had last been in power in the 1980s, but stressed that sell-downs or sell-offs of discrete new SOE investments should be allowed.

This is the challenge. Some SOEs are doing well, and want to expand – often into riskier overseas ventures. They should be able to do so, but the capital for such expansion need not come just from the taxpayer.

Foreign ownership is the big political bogey. If the taxpayer retaining an overwhelming majority stake is not enough, it may even be possible to develop an equity product restricted to the proverbial Kiwi mums and dads. It wouldn’t be as valuable as if it could be on-sold to anyone but that would be something the initial subscribers would know in advance.

Such a policy would not in fact be contrary to WTO rules, as claimed by the CTU.

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