Like Solid Energy, hubris behind Landcorp’s predicament

Written By: - Date published: 2:22 pm, August 22nd, 2015 - 54 comments
Categories: Economy, farming - Tags: , , , , ,

By Simon Louisson

Brace for another State-Owned Enterprise debacle when Landcorp releases its annual result next week.

Solid Energy was this month placed in Voluntary Administration following its financial collapse.

Landcorp may not be in quite the same pit as the coal miner, but negative cash-flow and rising debt will almost certainly mean it has breached banking covenants.

The Government has opted on a laissez faire attitude to its assets, so Landcorp will be forced by its banks, ANZ, ASB and Westpac, to sell assets at the bottom of market to repay debt.

The predicament of both companies is due to the same underlying factor – management hubris and inept governance.

Solid Energy, under former CEO Don Elder built grandiose plans on coal prices staying close to the multi-year highs they reached in the late 2000s despite all the historical evidence saying otherwise.

Under Dr Elder’s direction, Solid Energy, valued at $2.5 billion, invested heavily in alternative energy. It also built headquarters in Christchurch akin to one of Saddam Hussein’s palaces that housed hundreds of highly paid head office staff.

To the seeming surprise of Dr Elder, but not to experienced observers, coal prices fell so the cost of maintaining the $400 million of debt accumulated to fund Dr Elder’s grand plans became unmanageable. It had to flog off its alternative energy assets, but these were only at the fledgling stage and as the price of oil and coal had collapsed, were far from attractive.

There are many similarities with Landcorp. Spurred by the rise in price of milk powder, Landcorp has bet heavily on dairy, committing multi millions to converting sheep and forestry land to dairy farms.

Already holding a big dairy exposure, it took a long lease on the Wairakei Estate in the Central North Island where forests and nine dairy farms, previously owned by wealthy Auckland investors, will be expanded into 39 farms carrying 42,000 cows by 2021. The 26,000 hectares of conversions will cost “hundreds of millions of dollars,” according to SOE Minister Todd McClay.

Last year’s annual report shows contracted capital for conversions will cost $35 million until 2019 and it then escalates to $229 million.

The problem with Wairakei Estate, Landcorp’s General Manager of Dairy Operations, Mark Julian, told The Waikato Times recently, is the first 10 years will be “pretty tough”. The land is problematic for dairying because it has high production costs and poor levels of dry matter grown, he said.

In 2013/14, costs ran at $4.82/kg of milk solids against Fonterra’s forecast payout this year of $3.85/kg. And that’s before debt servicing costs.

Landcorp was already struggling with negative cashflow in the first half year. While it traditionally generates more positive cash in the second half, in the six months to December 31 it had receipts of $109.3 million, of which $57.5 million was milk, but payments of $121.6 million – a deficit of $12.3 million. Milk receipts are going to fall steeply.

There are other interesting aspects to Landcorp’s accounts. Its operating profit was $1.0 million, down from $13.1 million in the year ago period, but its net profit of $62.7 million, down from $109.3  million a year ago, included $62.6 million of unrealised gains on the value of its livestock.

I know only about enough of farming to distinguish sheep from cows, but my guess is that if milk prices are as dire as Fonterra’s Global Dairy Trade auctions show, then it is likely to affect cow prices.

Landcorp had debt of $359 million at December 31, up from $320 million at June 30, 2014. It has equity of $1.4 billion, but former CEO Chris Kelly pointed out on Radio NZ this week that the problem is that Landcorp, like most farmers is farming for capital gain and is cash poor, but Treasury has insisted it pay high dividends.

The Government extracted a $7 million dividend in October, up from $5 million a year earlier, and it has consistently taken out higher dividends than cashflow warranted.

The end result of this is that Taxpayers will have to endure the lunacy of a Government entity investing heavily at the top of the market and, having got into trouble, watch as the Government sits with its hands in pockets refusing to help, while Landcorp conducts a fire-sale of farms at the bottom of the market.

“My concern is that if you start making short-term decisions based on short-term commodity prices then you are just going to jump all over the place and will have no long-term strategy at all,” Mr Kelly said.

Foreign buyers, such as Chinese company Shanghai Pengxin, which purchased the Crafar farms, will salivate at the prospect of basement bargains.

Questions must be asked about governance. How is it that the managers and boards of SOEs such as Solid Energy and Landcorp get so excited about the normal waves of the commodities cycle that they over-invest and risk the Government’s (taxpayers’) billion dollar businesses?

Where is the oversight from the directors, each of whom is paid over $35,000 for 11 meetings a year while Chairwoman Tracy Houpapa collects over $50,000? What has Treasury’s Crown Ownership Monitoring Unit done to rein in the grandiose plans of SOE bosses and do their most basic job of protecting the taxpayers’ assets?

And what has SOE Minister Todd McClay done to earn his huge salary?

During the 1970s, former Prime Minister Robert Muldoon saw oil prices soar and, egged on by his advisers, spent many billions of dollars on his “Think Big” energy projects that aimed to cash in on the oil boom . But it ended in unmitigated disaster when oil sank to US$ 10/barrel.

Then in the 1980s we had state owned entities including the Bank of New Zealand, Development Finance Corporation and NZ Insurance being driven to the wall trying to ride the property boom.

It seems the more our politicians, managers and advisers swill at the trough, the greater the mess.

54 comments on “Like Solid Energy, hubris behind Landcorp’s predicament”

  1. RedLogix 1

    Privatisation by Crisis.

    Next up DoC. Parachute in a political cronies, run the organisation into crisis mode – sell out.

    • hoom 1.1

      Indeed.
      Was Nick Smith SOE Minister for a while?

    • Ad 1.2

      No, the ones to watch are Kiwirail, National Radio, TVNZ, and Kiwibank.

      English has ruled out further SOE privatisations this term, but he has been pretty clear that those are on the block if they get in next election.

  2. Draco T Bastard 2

    It seems the more our politicians, managers and advisers swill at the trough, the greater the mess.

    RSA Animate – Drive: The surprising truth about what motivates us
    Really, we should be paying directors, CEOs, and MPs about the average hourly wage.

  3. Keith 3

    Was Landcorp forced by the government to borrow money to pay dividends to the government, as per Solid Energy?

  4. b waghorn 4

    The best thing landcorp could do is start to liquidate there live stock and lease there farms out to kiwi resident farmers. This would be very popular with rural voters as landcorp has few fans outside there own gates.
    It would also reinvigorate an ageing farming population as our best and brightest would see a pathway to ownership which is denied most young kiwis .
    It is well known that landcorp is all but a not for profit operation who over capitalize there farms .

    • lprent 4.1

      Tell me, what exactly is the historic mission of Landcorp?

      They create or upgrade land and farms to workable economic farms and then sell them to young farmers. Your idiotic strategy would simply mean that process of improvement simply wouldn’t happen…

      Even these days they do the same thing, albeit less explicitly.

      Perhaps you shouldn’t comment on things that you are too stupid to understand.

      • b waghorn 4.1.1

        I like to chuck ideas out to see what happens it always, amuses me when I get arrogant old fuckwits like you playing the man and not the idea..
        While I do base my views on mostly anecdotal evidence there known for under performing compared to owner operates.
        Still sweat as if key sells them off a?

        • Shona 4.1.1.1

          Their not there! Learn to spell. moron! Your spelling and grammar is on a par with your thinking.

      • Weepus beard 4.1.2

        That mission statement is interesting.

        You would think that is government strategy to be applauded but instead National party lapdogs are baying for Landcorp’s blood, presumably in order to balance Blinglish’s books short term.

        I can only assume Farrar and co. would prefer these new farms to be sold to the Chinese rather than to young Kiwis.

      • b waghorn 4.1.3

        “”Properties that have ceased to have strategic value will be sold. In
        all instances market value will be sought through valuations from
        registered valuers and where appropriate through a competitive
        tender process.””
        This is from there strategic plan , I’ve could find no mention of selling to young farmers .

      • Gosman 4.1.4

        Is that in their mission statement or explicitly stated anywhere?

    • weka 4.2

      “The best thing landcorp could do is start to liquidate there live stock and lease there farms out to kiwi resident farmers.”

      according to wiki they already do.

      https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Landcorp

      • b waghorn 4.2.1

        They lease land off others of which some is the environmental vandalism their carrying out in south Waikato. I’m not aware of any helping hands being given to independent kiwis but would be trilled to be proven wrong.

        • weka 4.2.1.1

          ok, thanks for clarifying that.

        • Tracey 4.2.1.2

          use them as a base for training and then low cost loan some farmers onto their land? or run a kind of share milking scheme?

          • b waghorn 4.2.1.2.1

            Just a straight out lease to the best and brightest kiwi resident farmers at commercial rates.Possible with a few rules to keep the big players from cutting out new entrants.
            By keeping them in government ownership they get a income, the rates payed and can set the rules around environmental issues.
            The average age of kiwi farmers is rapidly increasing and staffing farms in some areas is becoming a real issue due in part to there being no pathway to ownership.
            There is alreaedy a training industry in nz , taratahi , smedley , whanganui atihau and aratiatia the last being a landcorp one .
            Edit, I was thinking sheep and beef , but yes 50/50 for the dairy farms would be good, its a system that’s works well.

  5. Detrie 5

    Seen this sort of thing when we worked in the Corporate & SOE sectors years back. Greed, managerial gut instincts and the promise of riches always outweighing common sense. Directors only seeing the profit estimates and commissions. I suspect there were middle mangers in these organisations that provided them ample market and risk analysis, but most likely brushed aside as being too ‘negative’.

  6. Jenny Kirk 6

    Who is Simon Louisson ? Its a good article, but what are his credentials for writing it ?

    • Simon Louisson 6.1

      In regard to who is Simon Louisson, I am a former journo who worked for Reuters, NZPA, AP Dow Jones, The Wall Street Journal, The Press and The Jerusalem Post

      • Redbaiter 6.1.1

        Amazed to find this article on the Standard.

        Very informative and well done.

      • lprent 6.1.2

        My apologies. I meant to write a intro comment (I’m a bit vague in my 4th cold this year damnit).

        https://www.google.co.nz/webhp?sourceid=chrome-instant&ion=1&espv=2&ie=UTF-8#q=%22Simon+Louisson%22

        He was also a political and media advisor for the Greens for some months, now retired to doing Shotts?

        I remember his business reporting before that.

        Because of that previous political connection when he sent me a post back at the budget, it got auto-filed as a press release. Eventually he wrote a sarcastic email and attracted my attention 🙂

        BTW: I like how the SEO has the search for his name with The Standard up on the first page in the google. Means that I have that working pretty well.

      • Jenny Kirk 6.1.3

        Thanks Simon – that clarifies it. And you will no doubt have noticed in today’s Sunday Star Times Rod Oram saying similar things about Landcorp.

  7. mickysavage 7

    I think the Government should be held at least partially to blame for Solid Energy’s demise. In May 2009 then SOE Minister Simon Power wrote to the Solid Energy Board and said this:

    “I am disappointed with the forecast decline in Solid Energy’s financial performance over the next three years, in particular the dramatic decline in profitability and dividends. While this is understandable, given the significant decline in forecast coal prices, it is far from clear why Solid Energy forecasts [redacted].”

    So Solid energy was getting bearish in its views but National insisted on the increased dividends being paid.

    $130 million in dividends were then paid including $30 million in a year when a hefty loss was recorded.

  8. BM 8

    The directors only see what the senior management is willing to show.

    Company could be crashing and burning and the directors wouldn’t have a clue.

    • Ad 8.1

      All SOE Boards should be “refreshed” every two years.
      Just good governance, done in a carefully managed sequence.
      Helps keep the CEO fully on their toes, under threat of replacement.

      Also, if a Board hasn’t figured out how to “deep dive” into specific areas of performance, then they are incompetent.

  9. Ad 9

    +100

    To have a look at what local capital can do with a set of dairy farms in a similar Taupo area, have a look at: http://www.miraka.co.nz

    Just a tiny little iwi really, but gutsy and determined to make dairy farming work for Maori. So they built up difficult central North Island land, converted to dairying, made it successful, but most importantly, instead of bowing to supply Oh Wise Monopoly Fonterra, they decided to go it alone and form their own little dairy factory.

    That meant scraping together their own capital, schooling up their own expertise, doing it small, but winning prizes, going international by themselves.

    Whereas Landcorp, as usual, too the easy way out. And are paying for it. There is absolutely no reason that a public shareholder could cut their dividend requirement, allow them to aggregate their own capital, so long as the focus was less on bulk commodities and more on higher value exported products.

    It’s also incomprehensible why Landcorp don’t their voice heard much louder around the table of the Fonterra Shareholder group. They’ve got enough of percentage. It’s as if it’s impossible for the interests of the state to be shouted loud and clear to our largest company.

  10. Saarbo 10

    This could get interesting, it does seem that Key/Nats will force Landcorp to sell farms, assuming that they want to make a material dent in its Debt of $359m, then they will have to sell at least $100m of farms. Very few farmers in NZ will be in a position to purchase these as the scale of these farms are very large, and placing a number of farms on the current market could be disastrous. If they do sell in this market then this will be another classic Kiwi government sale, the buyer will make all of the money out of it.

  11. Brendon Harre -Left wing Liberal 11

    How many farms in NZ trace back to land ballots of Crown land by egalitarian governments?

    http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~nzlscant/run.htm

    http://www.teara.govt.nz/en/1966/land-settlement/page-6

    • weka 11.1

      egalitarian if you were white 😉 (and male).

      • Brendon Harre -Left wing Liberal 11.1.1

        Yes that was a flaw of the 1891 -1912 Liberal government -they believed Pakeha could more productively use land than Maori would. There was an implicit racial superiority belief system.

        The male part was a little more complicated. The Liberals gave woman the vote, which was the first in the world. No doubt this continued a liberalising trend but it was also because they wanted to support family farming as part of their agrarianism political and economic belief system. They believed small, competitive, anti-monopolistic, egalitarian family farms would be the basis for a successful democracy and economy. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Zealand_Liberal_Party#Agrarianism

        I suspect Mackenzie/Liberals thought women who were wives of male farmers would vote for the family farms self interest -which of course would be for the Liberal party.

        The Liberals won 7 consecutive elections, they are the longest serving government administration in New Zealand’s history. They had a huge impact on NZ society, our belief system, our economy, even to this day.

        The Liberals failed because they became a staid conservative party. Aspects of the Liberal party are now split between National and Labour.

  12. saarbo 12

    @brendan Harre

    Many. It would have been a great move for Key/Nats to do Ballot out of these except I think they are too large.

  13. saarbo 13

    @brendan Harre

    Many. It would have been a great move for Key/Nats to do Ballot out of these except I think they are too large.

  14. amy 14

    More evidence of why governments should keep out of business. Will be beneficial when Chinese buyers no doubt buy solid energy and landcorp. Nz lacks the capital, the managers and the attitude to run very large business.

    No doubt the racist trolls will jump on me but there are many ways to achieve the ends that most on this sight share. It’s just a pity some extremists don’t tolerate non abusive discussion on the means. And as I have previously stated on here I am ethnic Chinese so bring on the racism guys!

  15. DH 15

    I’m not so sure that terms like hubris, incompetence, idealism etc are appropriate here. These people aren’t fools, they know what they’re doing and to suggest they’re just left Landcorp to its own devices for the last 7 years is a bit naive IMO. English in particular is a micro manager, he tries to control everything.

    Their treatment of assets doesn’t make sense unless there’s agenda(s) we don’t know about. NZ’s ability to borrow is reliant on our positive balance sheet of which the asset register is largely comprised of physical assets such as Crown enterprises and large land holdings etc.

    If NZ didn’t own significant assets English would have been unable to borrow like he did when the Nats came into power. Without assets he’d have struggled to get anyone to lend to us and what loans we would have been advanced would have been at usurious rates of interest.

    Fortunately for us we had enough assets to borrow against to weather the GFC storm and work our way back to surplus again. But now we’re left with a very low balance sheet which needs to be replenished to insure us against a future GFC which is 100% certain will happen sometime.

    In selling off our assets this National party is effectively sabotaging the nation’s future ability to borrow and that doesn’t make any sense to me. But… when you consider that the parties responsible will be doing very nicely for themselves then maybe it does start to make sense.

    • Ad 15.1

      Oram’s point today in newspaper was precisely how English should back off Landcorp because they have made a success well beyond any one commodity cycle.

      Exact opposite of Solid Energy; too little too late.

      National incompetent either way.

  16. Ad 16

    Oram made comparable points in SStar today.

  17. I know everyone goes on about how Solid Energy made a big mistake investing in renewable energy/biomass, but nobody seems to recognise that the National Government did move the goalposts here, by removing the mandatory biofuel legislation that Solid was relying on as a market for its biofuels.

    Sure, Solid’s actual rollout of planting was pretty flawed (remember the John Campbell piece down in the McKenzie country were all the farmers were laughing at Solid), but the goalpost moving was Government-driven.

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