Chinese investors looking beyond property


Chinese investors looking beyond property

By Jenny Liu

The Overseas Investment Amendment Bill recently received Royal assent which lays a degree of blame on non-residents, and in particular Chinese immigrants, for driving up the demand for real estate.

Having worked with many Chinese immigrants and investors, I do have a degree of sympathy for why they invest in property.

Under our Investor Plus Visa requirements, a non-resident investing more than $10 million in New Zealand only needs to spend 42 days here each year to obtain their permanent residency.

However, when they look to bring their money to New Zealand (often substantially more than the $10 million required), many immigrant investors struggle to identify other investments that they are comfortable with.

In some respects this mirrors the general appetite for property investments that ordinary New Zealanders have; and Statistics New Zealand backs this up showing that investments in residential properties made up 32 per cent of total investments in 2017.

By contrast, the same percentage in the United States or the United Kingdom is roughly half of ours. This suggests the issue is a systemic one, wider than just caused by immigrants (although they are an easy target).

Part of any solution could be to help direct overseas investment outside of property. Again this is a wider issue than just immigration.

It is linked to discussions around regional economic development and in particular identifying and promoting investable propositions other than property across different regions.

A good example would be focusing on promoting more investment in innovation and technology. And Chinese investors are well placed to make a meaningful difference in this area.

While stereotypes might suggest that Chinese are largely real estate investors, they are actually not, especially in recent years. Instead, high net worth Chinese individuals invest a large part of their wealth in venture capital, as well as directly in start-ups.

Last year, Chinese-led venture capital funding accounted for nearly a quarter of worldwide venture capital. This represented a 15-fold increase from 2013. Most of the investments went to Chinese companies but some also went to offshore ventures.

This flows from the encouragement of a creative and technology friendly culture in China over the last decade.

In part this is evidenced by the fact that most major cities now host incubators, and incubators, like the one I visited in Beijing recently, are overflowing with start-ups.

In fact, the incubator I visited allowed people into the building using face recognition software, had drones flying around in the open plan offices, included multiple product demonstration and testing areas, and had a cashless convenience store with no staff.

To give more context, even ordinary people in China now use apps for messaging, calls, social media, online purchases and vacation bookings.

They pay for groceries or taxis using scanned QR codes on their phones. The technology is pervasive and the general population is now used to, and expect, changes in technology to open up market opportunities.

This all supports the proposition that Chinese investors are primed to invest in innovation and technology more than ever before.

What New Zealand seems to be lacking, somewhat ironically given our "number 8 wire" mentality, is the pervasiveness of this type of culture that fosters investments in new technology.

In terms of the opportunity, according to the Global Innovation Index 2018, China ranked 17th overall for research and development (R&D), while New Zealand only came in a few places later at 22nd; notwithstanding the relative extent of investment across the two jurisdictions.

A closer look actually reveals that New Zealand has 4,052 researchers per million population while China only has 1,205. But our gross expenditure on R&D as a percentage of GDP is only 1.3 per cent, compared to China's 2.1 per cent. And remember our GDP base is so much smaller than China's.

Success for high tech companies is measured by ideas, researchers, money and access to markets.

For the last two factors, Chinese are willing to invest, ready to invest and have the connections to take any good products back to their market.

However our technology companies (although there are many) are not as easy to find, even for Kiwi investors, let alone Chinese investors who are often new to the country.

In addition to grants and tax credits, possibly therefore providing a better channel for immigrant investors to support local innovation could be a win for all.

Tencent, Alibaba and its Ant Financial affiliate have backed 43 per cent of all China's booming start-ups, which is probably something our largest companies could also consider here.

Successful investments in high growth technology companies form the fantastic stories and legends that can encourage an investment culture to take root.

People working in the China-New Zealand business space can also act as bridges. Some have already started, including the Zino growth fund.

In many respects these are the kind of projects that we would be better for spending our time on, rather than debating whether or not we should allow Chinese to buy real estate.

This article first appeared in the New Zealand Herald on 4 October 2018.

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