Who wants to buy Australian farms?

10 November 2016

Margaux Beauchamp, Executive Director, Corporate Finance |

Investment in Australia’s food and agribusiness industry is currently ‘in fashion’ with the battle for Kidman highlighting the different investor groups in the mix.

Australia's agribusiness industry is attractive to a range of different investment groups and continues to be the subject of attention for both domestic and foreign investors. The key for business owners seeking buyers and/or equity investors is to understand the difference in these various investor groups before heading to market.

In the current climate, the key investor market groups that have a particular focus on Australia's food and agribusiness industry are trade buyers; high net worth individuals; institutional buyers; and Asian buyers, notably from China. This variety has surprisingly similar motivators although there are some nuances to take into account.

Trade buyers shouldn’t be overlooked

It is sometimes overlooked in the current debate about foreign investment that for many decades Australia farmers have been buying out their neighbours to create larger-scale enterprises.  Indeed over the 30 year period to 2011 there was a 40% decline in the number of Australian farm businesses. (Source: ABS) 

The top 25% of agricultural businesses, as evidenced by Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics farm performance data, significantly outperform the rest of participants. This has allowed these businesses the opportunity to become major enterprises, often within one generation, and take a seat at the table when deals emerge.

The four outback cattle and transport families of Viv Oldfield, Tom Brinkworth, Sterling Buntine and Malcolm Harris who emerged to bid against Gina Rinehart, and her Chinese business partner, Shanghai CRED, in the battle for Kidman is a prime example of this in play.

This trend is expected to continue, with these entities also having the opportunity to partner with other investor groups seeking their management expertise.

The influence of institutional investment is growing

There is generally universal buy-in by institutional investors to the food and agriculture investment thesis with the key drivers being food security and/or raising middle class in Asia and changing diets. 

In the current investment environment with global uncertainty, negative interest rates, values for other asset classes at the high end, the returns offered by agriculture are compelling. 

Further agricultural investment offers important diversification for portfolios.  For one there is currently not a lot of agricultural investment in portfolios and  in cases where the majority of other assets may have volatile and fluctuating values, agribusinesses are often either stable or have prices that are moving in the opposite direction. This negative correlation means they're a valuable consideration for portfolio attention, and reinforces their status as a point of diversification.

The current challenge for institutions investing in agriculture is implementation.  There have been limited investment opportunities available.  It is currently easier to put money to work in infrastructure, real estate and private equity which offer trillions of dollars worth of opportunities, and have established and familiar investment structures - something that agribusiness can't yet boast. As agriculturet becomes a more attractive opportunity for investment in the coming years, investment managers will develop and begin to provide this much needed supporting infrastructure. 

A further challenge for institutional investment in agriculture is that since the Global Financial Crisis the bar for institutional investment generally has risen dramatically.  Investment decisions now involve the investment team, legal team, compliance team, regulatory team, investment committee, and Environment Social and Corporate Governance team.  Decision making is very complex and there are a lot of reasons not to make an investment. 

As investors find ways to overcome the challenges in the coming years, the prediction is that there will be an increased focus on agribusiness as a viable option for institutional investors. However, there is significant competition for investor attention and potential agribusiness investments need to fight for their place in portfolios.

High Net-Worth Individuals are Buying the Agricultural Investment Story

The motivators for institutional investment are often similar to those that drive High Net-Worth Investors increased interest in Australian agriculture.   Cases in point include London billionaire Joe Lewis taking control of AACo, Gina Rinehart’s bid for Kidman, and the speculation that Stokes and Fox are looking for agricultural investment opportunities in Australia.

Chinese investors are not that different to other investors

Chinese people are renowned around the world to be astute business people. Their interest in Australian agriculture is primarily motivated by strong commercial fundamentals.  In a country where businesses are able to raise equity capital on a much cheaper basis, Chinese businesses can have a low cost of capital that becomes a strong competitive advantage.  Factors being considered by Chinese companies in the deployment of this capital in Australian agriculture include:

  • Favourable macro-economic conditions
  • Risk diversification
  • Exposure to increasing land values - As the land on which the businesses are situated on grows in value, so does the investment as a whole 
  • Expectations of productivity improvements - agribusiness in general is growing more technologically advanced as businesses find a place for drones, data analytics and other improvements
  • Opportunities to fully develop businesses from having access to capital
  • Opportunities to value add by providing knowledge of market segments and distribution channels in the growing Chinese market, but on the basis of highest and best use throughout this journey
  • Australia is a primary source of “clean and green” food products
  • China-Australia Free Trade Agreement will ensure China remains our largest trading partner with a value that is more than double our second most valuable partner. As both Australia's largest source of imports and exports, China has a longstanding commitment to buying our resources and investing in the associated businesses. 

These factors mean many Asian investors have a positive sentiment of Australian agricultural investment and its potential for long term return.  However, this is to be balanced with the perceived lack of clarity associated with Australia’s FIRB laws in this particular industry. 

There is no single secret ingredient that maximises the prospect of completing transactions with an Asian investor (particularly from China).  The macroeconomic conditions are well understood by both parties, and do not aid those prospects.  Instead, parties will need to understand the investor’s intentions in much more granular detail, and this may sometimes involve throwing away one’s own usual perceptions as to the motivation behind the investor’s move. 

It is likely to be to a business owners’ advantage to understand the reasons investors look to the Australian food and agribusiness industry before they begin the investment process, as this will give them a better idea of who might be looking to invest and what they can do to better position their assets. 

It is also important to bear in mind that the agricultural investments sales process can take considerable time but the rewards from patience can be significant. The Kidman sales process, for example, is likely to take nearly two years to complete but is likely to deliver a price significantly above original market sentiment.