Banks keep tight rein on rural lending

ANDREA FOX
Last updated 05:00 12/01/2011

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Export commodity prices are sparkling but the outlook for the rural economy this year is "muddly", with banks keeping a stranglehold on farm lending and cashflows still tight, say sector specialists.

Global food prices lifted by 25 per cent last year and in Fonterra's first global online auction for the new year average dairy prices jumped 7 per cent.

But it will be 2012 before there is a rebalancing of overheated pre-recession land asset values and income, they say.

ANZ National Bank chief economist Cameron Bagrie says farm balance sheets look "a bit shoddy" despite "remarkably" high commodity prices, generating stronger incomes in the sector.

"Things will come together in 2012 but 2011 is going to be a bit of a muddly year."

Farmers will continue to concentrate on reducing debt this year. The outlook for 2011 is better than for last year but the sector is "in a halfway house", Mr Bagrie says. Next year farmers will have repaired their balance sheets and commodity prices are expected to still be strong, he says.

Market experts expect only a slight improvement in farm sale activity.

PGG Wrightson, the country's biggest rural real estate company, predicts more energy in the $10 million-plus farm market with farmers and other investors with cash teaming up to buy farms that would be operated like corporates, with shareholders and contracted management.

PGGW real estate manager Stuart Cooper says inquiry at this top end of the market increased last month. There were only five sales of big farms nationally last year compared with 60 in boom year 2008, he said.

Bank of New Zealand chief economist Tony Alexander says an indication of new economic life in the sector is a strong increase in tractor registrations last month.

More people, including syndicates, with capital and only some debt would enter the market this year, he believes.

But Waikato accountant Nigel McWilliam, a dairy specialist with Diprose Miller, says banks are responsible for the real estate market squeeze.

"Bank criteria for lending are making it so difficult to get deals across the line.

"We have farmers looking to borrow, and a number [of clients] looking to sell, and the banks are very involved with sale and purchase agreements, walking the property with the purchaser and then pouring cold water on the deal."

This is a far step from pre-recession days when banks were lending freely, including against land value appreciation, Mr McWilliam says.

ASB rural economist James Shortall says dairy and meat returns are generally strong but farmers' cost structures are still high because of increases in inputs like fertiliser.

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Important farming regions like Waikato are struggling with drought and farmers are very cautious about spending after "a real shakeup" over cashflow deficits.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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