By Bernard Hickey
New Zealand has in the past struggled to save enough to invest in technology and equipment that makes our workers more productive and therefore allows us to pay higher wages.
That appears to be changing and there's no better example right now than Refining NZ's proposal to invest NZ365 million to replace an ageing part of its Marsden Point plant with a new more efficient (Continuous Catalytic Regeneration platformer) CCR plant.
Five years ago New Zealand as a nation would not have been able to make that investment from its own savings. The banks who would have lent the money to Marsden Point back in 2007 would have in turn gone into international capital markets to borrow from foreign investors.
New Zealanders were spending almost NZ$1.10 for every NZ$1 they earned, often using the fast rising values of their houses as the excuse. Banks borrowed heavily overseas to make that happen. Even 30 years ago when Rob Muldoon was campaigning for his controversial 'Think Big' expansion of Marsden Point his government had to borrow overseas to do it. Not any more.
The latest proposed expansion of Marsden Point's capacity, if approved by shareholders on April 27, will be funded by bank borrowings. But this time theses banks will in turn be funded by deposits and bonds from local KiwiSaver funds and local individual investors.
In the last 10 days alone, three banks managed to raise more than NZ$1.2 billion from local investors, even though interest rates offered for up to 7 years were at historically low levels of 6% or lower. See more here from Gareth Vaughan on our site.
A wave of cash is now flooding into bank accounts and KiwiSaver funds in a way New Zealand hasn't seen for decades. New Zealanders are spending less consuming things and are instead saving for the future, either out of fear about what might blow up next in the Global Financial Crisis, or out of hope that it might be used to repay our foreign debts and invest in better jobs for their kids.
It is allowing our banks to fund what little lending growth there is from local funds. Now the crucial task is to invest it wisely in a way that makes New Zealand more productive and allows us to pay higher wages. There are some signs some of it is being poured into the bottomless pit of ever rising prices of existing homes in Auckland, but we have yet to see it spread wholesale to the rest of New Zealand.
So it's great to see at least one investment decision that ticks all the boxes from a New Zealand Inc point of view. Refining NZ wants to expand its petrol refining capacity to 65% of New Zealand's needs from 55% and do it in a way that uses 15% less energy, produces less greenhouse gases and has internal rate of return of over 17% per annum.
The project will generate an extra NZ$60 million of operating earnings each year for shareholders and be able to repay the debt within four years. Dividends would increase. Building the CCR project will create hundreds of extra jobs in the struggling Northland region while it is being built, and will save billions in foreign currency over the 50 plus year life of the plant because extra refining capacity here means fewer imports.
That money will flow round and around New Zealand, rather than some other refinery in Australia or Asia.
This is how our savings should be invested, creating high quality jobs that help us pay our way in the world. Better that than another deck for another barbecue.