23 Sep 2014

Govt rejects it's left with dud SOEs

7:04 am on 23 September 2014

The Government has been accused of stupidity for selling stakes in its most profitable companies when having to bail out loss-making ones.

Energy companies Genesis, Meridian Energy, Mighty River Power and Air New Zealand produced bumper dividends in the June financial year, totalling $736 million.

Mighty River Power's Whakamaru power station on the Waikato River.

Mighty River Power's Whakamaru power station on the Waikato River. Photo: MIGHTY RIVER POWER

While the Treasury does not have the figures yet, rough calculations indicate the Government's reduced share was roughly $381 million.

Jim Anderton paid tribute to Phil Goff.

Jim Anderton. Photo: SUPPLIED

But if the revenue is smaller, some of the bills attached to troublesome SOEs like KiwiRail and Solid Energy have not been.

The Government will spend $1 billion plus to fix the rail operator, including another $198 million earmarked in May's Budget. Indeed, more than half will come from the $4.7 billion asset sale programme.

Meanwhile, the Government last week gave Solid Energy a $103 million financial lifeline to stop it becoming technically insolvent.

A former minister in the last Labour-led government, Jim Anderton, is not impressed. "If the Government sell its most profitable SOEs and keeps its less profitable ones, it's a bit stupid ... it strikes me that's a no-brainer," he says.

Mr Anderton argues that electricity generators, rail and national airliner are essential assets that no government can allow to fail.

He said it is better to own them outright and take the good with the bad, since the private sector would blanche at investing in unprofitable operations.

Finance Minister Bill English.

Finance Minister Bill English. Photo: RNZ

"Why don't we ask shareholders to share in loss-making state-owned enterprises while we're at it. See how many bidders you get for that. That's the point. Of course, people will buy things they think they can get money out of. But no one's going to put money into things they think they have to pay for."

Finance Minister Bill English rejects criticism that taxpayers have been left holding dud state-owned enterprises. "Businesses that have found it hard were finding it hard - regardless of whether we owned (profitable) electricity companies or not."

Mr English says the extra funds and management efforts to return them to profitability are worth it. "It does enable us actually to focus on protecting taxpayers value and really digging in to understand whether these businesses will be viable in the long run."

no caption

The Government will spend at least $1 billion to fix the rail operator. Photo: PHOTO NZ

Transport firm Mainfreight is a big user of the loss-making KiwiRail. Managing director Don Braid says the Government is probably the best owner of rail, and it is right to invest heavily in it.

"What are the alternatives? We haven't got roads that would be capable to carrying the freight we have on rail now."

Mr Braid said the country would be worse off with congested roads. "I do believe rail forms an important part of the transport infrastructure ... and there is more we can do as a nation to actually make rail successful."

The Government has ruled out further asset sales. Many are small, or would interest a trade buyer rather than investors.

But Lew Evans, a former professor of economics at Victoria University, believes the national grid operator Transpower could be a candidate. "It's tightly regulated. It's very common (overseas) for the grid to be privately held."

Mr Evans says the mixed ownership model has worked out well internationally.

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs