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Cash (for the rich) in Auckland’s attic?

Written By: - Date published: 2:58 pm, June 25th, 2009 - 31 comments
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The soften up for the next big fire-sale of Kiwi assets is well under way in Auckland, as Rogernomics morphs into Rodneynomics.

On Tuesday 16th June the Herald published a special section “Project Auckland” sponsored by a number of companies including Deloitte’s.

In it was an article by Fran O’Sullivan called “Cash in Auckland’s attic” which began: “Should Council’s consider realising their assets rather than hanging on to them?”

Fran quoted analysis produced by Deloitte’s at the Herald’s request.

Some of Deloitte’s suggestions:

  • sale of all or part of its interest in Ports of Auckland – $588 million
  • sale of 19.9% stake in Northland Port – $23.5 million

“all or part of the capital “burden” of hese assets could be transferred to the private sector through PPP or concession arrangements:

  • sale of interest in Auckland International Airport – $248million
  • sale and leaseback..for all or part of the wastewater and water assets with a current value of $1.1billion.”

Funny how big money is a burden when it doesn’t belong to the rich. I wish.

But it makes it clear why Mark Ford is in charge of getting Auckland ready for sale.

31 comments on “Cash (for the rich) in Auckland’s attic? ”

  1. “Funny how big money is a burden when it doesn’t belong to the rich”

    What the council has now are assets, and what they will get for them is money. The ‘burden’ is having capital tied up in these assets rather than being able to spend it. I hope that clears it up for you.

    I personally would prefer that the councils have money to spend on their functions then become wannabe investors on behalf of their ratepayers.

  2. bill brown 2

    So the council sells their assets so we can have free rubbish collection until the money runs out?

    • George D 2.1

      No, the council sells the assets so the ratepayers in Epsom halve their rates bills until the money runs out.

      • bill brown 2.1.1

        Do they still get their rubbish picked up for free?

        • George D 2.1.1.1

          No, that only happens if we sell the wastewater. If we sell the Museum we get a free trip to Rangitoto.

  3. Jono 3

    It’s funny how Council development and ownership of (particularly non-core) assets is seen by those on the right as an abberation, when in fact local government in NZ has has a +130 year history of asset creation vs a 20 year history of asset destruction. Councils had road, park, land reclamation and other boards devoted to building those assets for their communities because central government and private enterprise were not interested or able. Has that situation really changed?

  4. Rex Widerstrom 4

    Ports are a commercial business utilised by very few ratepayers. Airports are a commercial business used by a larger proportion of ratepayers. Neither, however, are crucial to their wellbeing.

    Thus I see no reason why it should be wrong to discuss the possibility of selling councils’ interests in them to release capital to invest in other infrastructure (public transport, locking up more land as parks, construction of effective waste recycling operations and a host of others). There may prove to be economic arguments as to why this isn’t a good idea, but I don’t see a bunch of wharves and cranes as some sort of icon.

    Of course the important proviso to that view is that money raised from selling some assets be invested in others and not, as bill brown points out, the artificial subsidisation of core services. Or wasted on a SuperMayor and SuperCouncillors’ salaries and perks, either.

    However, because I take that view for the reasons I do, it utterly horrifies me that one could suggest selling ports in the same breath as water and wastewater. First and most importantly they are crucial to the wellbeing of every ratepayer and indeed their continued affordability by even the most impoverished resident is absolutely vital. And second they mesh far more coherently with other council core services.

    • Rex: Lots of things are crucial to people’s wellbeing but are provided by markets. Food, for example. If you’re worried about the poor missing out, you can easily provide vouchers, or just cash transfers, like we do already.

      • Rex Widerstrom 4.1.1

        Tom that’s a fair point. But I have two concerns when we’re talking something as fundamnetal as water.

        First, what if all goes horribly wrong as it did in Bolivia (and other places, though that is by far the worst example)? We can conceivably live without a port, not without drinking water.

        And second, even National has woken up to the stupidity of taxing people to funnel money, through beneficiaries, into the pockets of private enterprise and are talking of letting tenants buy their state houses, using the proceeds to build more state houses and move low income people out of private rentals, and so on.

        • Tom Mathews 4.1.1.1

          You’ll certainly get no disagreement with me that we can’t live without drinking water. Again though, the main problem is often that the poor can’t afford it.

          Prices can be contained either through opening the market up to competition, or if that is impossible, running it on a frequently renewed tender process. If the poor still can’t afford water, you subsidise it for them, give them vouchers, or (ideally) cash transfers.

          I’m certainly no expert, but it seems like none of these things happened in Bolivia, and the outcome, while tragic, was far from unpredictable.

          • felix 4.1.1.1.1

            Or you just pipe it to everyone’s home and let them drink it. Duh.

            It’s not that fucking difficult.

            The only problem with this approach is that no-one gets to squeeze a profit from the citizenry for the use of a publicly built and owned asset.

            What a shame.

  5. Surely the reason to keep shares in the Port and Airport is that they’re profitable businesses and you can make money out of them.

    There’s another, more ideological, argument. But basically why the heck sell stuff that makes you money?

    • George D 5.1

      Businesses sell profitable assets all the time – when they feel that investing it elsewhere will give them a better return or allow for expansion. There is no evidence provided at all that this can or should be done here, and to my knowledge no-one’s even making the argument.

  6. ” But basically why the heck sell stuff that makes you money?”

    By selling them now, you capture their future value. So the amount of money you get now should be about the same as the total amount of money you would earn off them in the long term, as well as such things can be estimated. The difference is that if you sell them, you can spend the cash now, if you need to.

    The other, you might say more ideological reason, is that in many areas, privately owned companies tend to out-perform publicly owned ones, because the incentives are superior. This isn’t always the case, most obviously for public goods, but I can’t see why it wouldn’t be for a port.

    • andy 6.1

      By selling them now, you capture their future value. So the amount of money you get now should be about the same as the total amount of money you would earn off them in the long term, as well as such things can be estimated.

      Glad your not my investment advisor. I would expect the ports of Auckland has paid itself off many times over the hundred plus years of operation.

      Sure there is a sunk cost in airports and ports, but they return a reasonable dividend that councils have come to rely on. Where will that money come from? Cuts in services and a rise in rates charged.

      privately owned companies tend to out-perform publicly owned ones, because the incentives are superior.

      Selling assets is short termism in the extreme, thought we had moved on to a more commercial model where we own the asset but it is run on a business model like Auckland Airport and Ports of Auckland.

      Also how do you accurately value a monopoly asset in a recession?

      • Tom Mathews 6.1.1

        I don’t mean to quibble, but they aren’t sunk costs, as they are retrievable. That would be the point of privatisation.

        When I say selling them now captures future value, I mean it like this. If you think that over time you will earn Y off an asset, and I offer you X such that Y>X, you won’t sell it to me. You’re only going to sell it if X is greater than or equal to Y. Likewise, I am not going to offer more than I think I will make from it. So by selling it now, you get the best guess at what it’s going to be worth in the future. You’re right that it is ‘short termism’, it just shows that you would prefer the money now, rather than later. But it is going to be roughly the same amount of money.

        Assuming that the Auckland City Council are rational payoff maximisers. Maybe they are not.

        • Pascal's bookie 6.1.1.1

          “Assuming that the Auckland City Council are rational payoff maximisers. Maybe they are not.”

          I’d say dollars to donuts they are not. Most public asset sales, as far as I can remember have been for one (or both) of two reasons.

          The ideological belief that it is not the governments business to be owning the asset. That’s fair enough, but it is a purely political question. It will be framed around efficiency or some other reason that the private sector would be better at the task, and again that’s fair enough, but it usually assumes some presuppositions that must be held to make the argument fly. Such as, ‘economic efficiency (defined within parameters x-z) is the primary consideration for determining whether the govt should own something’.

          Those presuppositions usually don’t get argued, the question gets begged, and they are where the political disagreements actually are.

          The other reason for asset sales is a short term need for the cash, usually to ‘pay off debt’. Here the decision is again, political. Politicians are looking at the books, seeing a need for more revenue, or ready cash, and making a decision. If tax rises aren’t politically viable, (which is always a hard choice), they will look at asset sales. These can be justified with all sorts of arguments.

          I guess what I’m saying is that the sort of future earnings calculation you talk about, don’t often happen in reality. They are a construct to explain what a rational price would be. In reality however, politicians decide to sell assets for any number of reasons, and then get whatever price they can for them. There will be a price that they won’t sell for, but I suspect that that price is based on what they need the money for now, rather than any actual calculations about the future earnings of the asset.

          If I’m making any sense…

          • vto 6.1.1.1.1

            P’s B “Those presuppositions usually don’t get argued, the question gets begged, and …”

            You are quite right. And it would be good to stretch it to that. I reckon that is an area where the left is not gaining the ground it could. If the public engaged their brains on it (stirred by left types) they would probably tend to agree with increased govt ownerhip of assets. (just. kiwirail is a bit of a push. – edit, not the land and corridor component).

      • Swampy 6.1.2

        The port is not a monopoly asset, there are other ports that will take the business and are prepared to compete.

        • Zaphod Beeblebrox 6.1.2.1

          Correct, if ARH is sold and Tauranga Ports does not buy it, we will have an effective duopoly. Marginally better.

    • Tigger 6.2

      Is now the time to sell? I mean, big ticket items like luxury cars, houses and boats just aren’t fetching top dollar. If we’re going to sell then shouldn’t we wait for a boom time?

      (the above comment in no way is meant to imply that Tigger agrees with asset selling because he doesn’t, he’s happy for the councils to own stuff).

    • So Bored 6.3

      “Selling them now to capture future value”…. you have a crystal ball?
      “As well as things might be estimated”….thats a very accurate basis for assessing our future needs.
      “Spend the cash now”…what the hell on?

      Can you gaurantee our water supply tomorrow by doing the above?

  7. Tom, if we take the port as an example, through the ARH it has provided the regional council with a huge amount of cash over the last decade or so. We may have got a “quick buck” if the port had been sold in the early 1990s, but certainly it seems like a better deal in hindsight to have kept it.

    Given that we have that hindsight, why even go there?

    • Well if that cash was predictable, it would have increased the value of the asset when we sold it off; I make that point above. People often assume that current price just represents current value, but it generally reflects future value as well, to an extent.

      If the return was unpredictable, then I think that supports getting out, because we stand to lose just as much as we stand to gain. Just because we gained in the past doesn’t mean we’ll win in the future, as the recent stock market crashes have surely shown.

      • jarbury 7.1.1

        All that means is that, practically, there’s just as much reason to sell as to not sell? I’m still somewhat unconvinced by that though – was it really a good idea to sell the railways, Telecom, etc. etc.?

        • Tom Mathews 7.1.1.1

          You’re right, if publicly owned firms were run identically to privately run firms, all we would gain is the ability to spend our money now, rather than later, plus or minus any unpredicted effects in the profitability of the assets. Whether that’s good or bad depends on the situation.

          The real debate, of course, is if they are run the same way. Here’s a paper on how firms fared after privatisation:
          http://www.nzbr.org.nz/documents/policy/policy-2004/PB_No5.pdf
          It argues that most improved afterwards. Some didn’t, however, which I think suggests that the process is also important. In Telecom and probably the railways we clearly got the process wrong; we just sold off monopolies. But that doesn’t mean it can’t be done well, and to everybody’s benefit.

          The paper appears to have been commissioned by the Business Roundtable though, take from that what you will.

        • Swampy 7.1.1.2

          No problem selling the railways or Telecom, the country hasn’t lost out.

  8. Zaphod Beeblebrox 8

    One thing investors love is investing in monopoly enterprises. That way they are guaranteed a profit, despite having to take virtually no risk or creativity.
    Bankers also love investing in monopolies because they know that if profits drop a bit, prices can easily be raised.

    The fact that it requires virtually no business acumen or mangement skills are what business interests love things like public-private partnerships, SOE’s and private ownership of monopoly assets. And if the business falls over, the public is always their to bail them out.

    The real losers are the struggling businesses that are trying to raise capital in competition with the monopoly providers. They actually have to produce and compete against other businesses.

    • Swampy 8.1

      Really, this is a great description of public ownership of monopolies. Most of the time they are monopolies because the public agency that owns them decreed it would be so. Do you see that being possible in the private sector? For example until 1980s there were no private sector TV or radio networks in NZ because the government granted itself monopoly rights over these sectors.

      The port is not a monopoly, but if sale isn’t desirable, leasing out the operations is a reasonable alternative. They have I think 2 container terminals, each of these could be leased to a different company to guarantee competition. That incidentally would be a lot better than the current situation where as far as the ARC is concerned having just one port that they own is a great idea

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