Canadian investors’ big thirst for Aussie ag assets


Gregor Heard
@grheard
9 Oct 2019, 8 a.m.Agribusiness

BIG PLAYERS: Canadian investors have flocked to Australian agribusiness in their droves in recent years.

BIG PLAYERS: Canadian investors have flocked to Australian agribusiness in their droves in recent years.

Canadian pension fund PSP Investments’ offer for Australian agribusiness Webster Limited is just the latest in a production line of investors from the North American nation looking to get involved in Australian agriculture.

In recent years Nutrien, which already owns Landmark, has recently acquired Ruralco, while in the dairy space Saputo has bought out two iconic Australian dairy businesses in Warrnambool Cheese and Butter and Murray-Goulburn in the past two years after first purchasing a share of WCB back in 2014.

Webster is far from the first foray into Aussie ag for Canadian pension funds either.

PSP has previously acquired Riverina-based grain and piggery business BFB, along with Central Australian cattle stations, while the Ontario Teachers’ Pension Plan also has Australian agricultural investments.

It is a big list from a nation with a population only slightly greater than our own.

Business consultant Mitch Morison, Morison Advisory, said there were a number of factors why Canadian investors were happy to take the plunge into the notoriously volatile Australian ag sector when the broader Aussie investment community has largely stayed away.

“Agriculture is a good way for these businesses to diversify their portfolios and Australia is a logical place to invest outside their own borders,” Mr Morison said.

“Regulatory-wise it is relatively easy for Canadian businesses to work their way through the Australian system so that is something they look at.”

“Canadian rules also allow them to not have to chase those defined returns as hard which make agriculture, where earnings can go up and down with the seasons, an easier place to invest.”

Belinda Moore, agribusiness analyst with Morgans, also nominated diversification as a key factor for the big Canadian investors.

“It is a means to diversify away from equity markets and Australia is a good place to do business,” Ms Moore said.

“Compared to other major agricultural centres, such as the Black Sea nations, there is a lot less geopolitical risk when buying Australian assets.”

Ms Moore said pension fund investors would not be deterred by the year to year volatility in earnings.

“They take a very long term view with their investments.”

Mr Morison said the Canadian investors had looked for specific characteristics when making their purchases.

“The trend has been for corporate to corporate deals not farmer-owned land.”

“They have also been looking to accumulate assets of a certain size and scale, you look at BFB or Websters they are not looking for small scale options.”

Mr Morison said the offer for Webster showed the drought and the controversy over water rights in the Murray Darling Basin was not deterring international investment in the region.

“They will be in this for the long run and I think they will go into it knowing that two out of ten years in Australia are hit by drought.

“The investors would be hoping they’ve seen those two droughts in the last two years and that things improve from here.”

“In the long term I think Australian ag’s future is strong, we just have to endure the current situation with the drought.”

The spectacular returns on offer in the nut industry would also be a factor Mr Morison said.

“With the margins in things like almonds at present the investors would be aware you can pay these record prices for water and still make a profit so there is good scope there when water prices come back.”

On a macro level, Mr Morison said Canadian investors had been looking at asset classes such as infrastructure and agriculture.

“There has been money put into pipelines and roads and there is an appetite for land and the capital appreciation we are seeing there.

“Looking at the big picture they see the food story as something that becomes more important as time goes on.”

Culturally, Mr Morison said Canadians found it easy to work in Australia.

“With both our agriculture industries we are export orientated rather than looking at just the domestic market, with relatively small population bases we need to look beyond our doorstep.

“Australia is the logical place for them to invest if they want to be exposed to agriculture but to look overseas, where else would you look that has the same security and ease of doing business?”

Postscript

Landmark includes the Dalgety business with which I was involved for nearly 30 years. Frederick Gonnerman Dalgety, the founder of the business, whilst of Scottish ancestry was actually born in Canada, so it’s the full turn of the wheel. Following the merger with Ruralco they intend to rename the enlarged business. I have suggested that they could do worse than renaming it “Dalgety”. But, they are not biting.

The Webster business that PSP are buying includes Tandou where I was on the Board and I still have a few shares. Happy to take $2 for them. The Webster takeover of Tandou was all paper in the form of Webster shares and the PSP offer means that those Tandou shareholders who stayed in have done well out of them.

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