I’ve been thinking


Do what you do well, is advice that is often given. Get back to basics. So let’s think about this for a moment from a New Zealand perspective. At the moment our economy, like many economies is looking grim. We are borrowing lots of money to stay afloat. We look to electronics, bioengineering and other things that we are good at, but aside from a few exceptions we don’t seem to capitalise on it. We are great with ideas, but not so good at doing something about it.

We have some success stories sure, wine does ok, lamb was doing ok until they invented food miles and we are pretty successful at controlling segments of milk and fruit, particularly apples and kiwifruit. The legacy of people like Angus Tait (who I had the privilege of working for 7 years) continues, but without his innovative attitude. We have some success stories, but they are really far and few between.

Many years ago, when we all took it for granted, we were an agrarian economy and very successful at it. We’ve been successful food exporters, right back to when the Dunedin, the world’s first refrigerated ship left New Zealand full of frozen meat carcasses, back in 1882.

New Zealand fed many parts of the world for over a hundred years and life was good. Live sheep have been exported for over 100 years, although a number of incidents where thousands of sheep died have had a negative impact on this. My biggest argument, besides the inhumanity of keeping live animals penned up for so long, was that much of the stock was exported for breeding purposes, which of course reduced the demand for our own product.

But I digress. In today’s economy, we seem to have turned our backs on some opportunities, such as creating large call centres to look after communications needs of other English-speaking countries in other time zones, a market that South Africa has made a huge industry out of. We aren’t doing enough in areas such as science and medicine, possibly because the people with the smarts go offshore.

So lets look at what problems the world is going to face in the near future, in fact many parts of the world are facing right now, food! Scarce water resources, growing populations and growing tracts of land that are becoming so dry and depleted that nothing will grow on them. Then of course we also have oceanic dead zones, which are killing fish and other sea life.

Is this something we could look at with a different De Bono Hat on? Oceanic Dead Zones thrive through a combination of fertilisers and nutrients that leach into rivers and down to the sea, causing large algae blooms. These compound as the phytoplankton absorbs available oxygen and pretty much kills everything off.

Could this be another opportunity? When I need some extra energy before a run, I swallow a pile of Spirulina. Spirulina is actually algae. Of course the algal blooms often contain toxins, but there are many algae that can be used as a food source. Perhaps we could turn a bad situation into a good one.

In New Zealand, since we signed the Kyoto protocol, it has become relatively economic to grow forests (which while gobbling up Carbon Dioxide also use up a lot of water). We have lots of land, a good climate for agriculture and a need to find new sources of income. In fact I have heard that NZ can no longer feed its population without importing food. So why don’t we start looking at ways of growing bulk food?

If we want to do the right thing, we could look at product that has low cost to grow, that we can export for a profit and help countries that have problems at the same time. More than 1 billion people (1 in 6) suffer from food deprivation.

Food Science is something we are very good at. Most universities have food science and biotechnology majors and there is even a Food Science Institute. Many people have a problem with GE Food. I don’t personally know enough about it, but one way or another we either have to put production into overdrive or accept that hundreds of millions of people will die soon through malnutrition and starvation.We have a food crisis now. Grain is scarce and with oil running out a lot of people are now growing grain to fuel cars, creating even less food source.

Whilst human population growth is slowing, there were still 74 million new mouths to feed last year. A large chunk of these are in countries where soils are eroding, water tables falling and wells going dry.

Water politics is becoming a new issue and it could be that future wars are fought between countries that share water sources. This is especially likely where low lands are reliant on water coming from highlands. Think Europe, where many of our recent wars have begun. But again I digress.

Can we go back to agriculture as something we are very good at and the world needs? Dairy is currently our biggest export and apparently Fonterra’s income represented 25% of New Zealand’s total export revenue 2 years ago!

So we are good at growing crops, but could we do more? I think so. First, we should be self sustainable. We can’t afford to rely on other markets, especially when things get to a crisis where 1st world countries start fighting over resources. Then we should look at how we can feed the world and get paid for it. As a country surrounded by sea, we do not face the extremes that occur with countries that have large land masses, including our neighbours Australia.

As to Food Miles, I’m all for sustainability, so lets look at this is an opportunity. This can mean focussing on closer markets such as Australia and Asia, but also on biotechnology to get more for less.

Sometimes I think we try to be too clever. Faster computers, cloud computing, cars, planes, rockets, 3D TV, all things I want to continue to enjoy, are meaningless to the ever rowing numbers of starving and malnourished people around the world. Because of our geographic isolation, we became very good at food. Let’s look for more and new ways to exploit this. Lets make sure that if everything turns to dung, we can still feed ourselves, then lets look at how we can help feed the world and pay off our national debt at the same time.

I’ll leave the last word to NASA who have remote sensing technology to monitor conditions affecting food resources and their management:

NZ Herald Landlords taking money we need


It’s soapbox time folks. Over the last week, there have been several stories in the NZ media about businesses complaining that people are investing in rental properties instead of buying shares and options in companies on the share market. The latest was in yesterday’s NZ Herald.

I take exception to their bleating and here’s why. Many years ago I worked for a company called RC Dimock as a divisional sales manager. A number of us got together under the guidance of the Financial Controller and formed a share club. We all put money in each week and collaborated on which companies we would invest in.

I really enjoyed it. I read every copy of NBR, charted the daily value of stocks, learned about all aspects of stocks and bonds and invested more in our own company, my employer when we were purchased by Anzon Investments. As time went on, I started investing independently, continued staying up to date with large reliable companies and punted on more risky investments in various industries.

I had my own broker and whilst my investments were not massive, I was young and suspecting that superannuation was not going to give me any sort of lifestyle, I was looking for ways to improve that situation when it came.

As well as Anzon, I joined many people who invested their life savings in NZ stalwarts including Brierley Investments, Carter Holt, Robert Jones and many other companies. Then came Black Tuesday and many Kiwis lost their entire retirement savings.

Friends and colleagues lost almost everything they had, whilst the senior managers of the public companies moved on and in many cases their old boys club helped them pick themselves up again.

When I got married and started a family, we bought our first modest home and gave up any form of lifestyle for a few years paying at times over 21% interest, but we were building some security. Other people’s poor business decisions and the economic climate were not going to take this from us, providing we were able to maintain the payments.

Subsequently I worked for a company which was embezzled by it’s CEO and lost 10′s of thousands of dollars in salary, commissions and a large company credit card bill that my boss had run up without my knowledge. I then learned what it means to get a company credit card and you sign a form in good faith saying that you are jointly and severally liable for a company credit card. The credit card company who were coincidentally owned by my bank told me that I could either pay for the company credit card, or they would sell my house and give me the change after the 9 month bill was paid.

Further in my career, when I was making a lot of money for my new employer of almost 7 years, I was made redundant when the company was sold, along with several of my colleagues and my MD. The decision was made on the basis of a spreadsheet looking only at what they were paying us, not the great success we were achieving, over budget in ebit and sales.

So forgive me for having a lack of faith in business as a way of protecting my future lifestyle if and when I reach retirement age.

I started learning about rental properties, LAQC company structures, negative gearing and tax benefits, in as much as being able to claim depreciation and costs against my personal income and invested in a rental property.

Some people thought I was rich because I had a rental property, but my own home remained modest and I was having to subsidise the rental to cover the cost of the 100% mortgage, i.e. I had zero equity. My first tenants were a young family with 4 kids. Sometimes they would call me and say they couldn’t make the rent and could they pay the following week. I was paying around $170 a week to top up the mortgage, because the rent didn’t cover it. Then there was property insurance, fixing appliances, calling in drainlayers when they tried to flush nappies and other unmentionables down the toilet. These are just a few of the issues I had, and if it wasn’t for the ability to recover some of these losses against my income tax I would have gone broke.

The family were never going to be able to buy their own home and didn’t take great care of mine. They couldn’t pay a rent that would cover my costs, market rents did not reflect the cost of owning property. My hope was that over time the property value would increase and I would recoup my losses.

The key to my rationale, which I still subscribe to, is that I was making my own decisions and having control in the level of risk I was prepared to take. I wasn’t going to have my safety net taken away by some entrepreneur who was travelling first class around the world, who was able to walk away and start again when he had spent all my investment savings.

Owning a rental property is a business. There is a need for rental properties. The Government has quit most of their State Housing stock and people who can’t afford to buy their own homes, around 35% of the NZ population, over 1.5 million people do not own their own homes. So who is going to take responsibility for them?

When people set up a public company and use our funds to run them and take risks with, we have no control over how they use our money. If things turn sour as they have for many Kiwis trying to invest their hard earned money, they walk away and set up their next business. Investing in public or private companies is high risk. For people who can afford that risk, great, enjoy. But most owners (think big mortgage) of rental properties are not wealthy people, they are just people trying to make sure they can afford a little lifestyle when they retire without being a burden on their family. It is not easy owning rental property and the odd example of someone who has built up a rental empire is the exception, not the rule. The majority are Mum’s and Dad’s who don’t want to live on a combined income of $478 a week.

Could you live on $478 a week including rent, power and phone? What would that give you for food? Forget entertainment. On the other side, there is the potential for people to live much longer than in previous years and with Baby Boomers, less tax payers to heklp support them.

If the Government wants us to invest in business instead of rental property, they should give us some security against the risk of public companies. Of course they will also have to invest in providing rental accomodation for the 35% of us who can’t afford to own their own homes. What are the odds of that? About the same as that of people who invested their life savings in Brierley Investment shares. Telecom shares anyone?