'NZ is open for business,' Bill English tells Hong Kong investors

"That's a very impressive view I have to say," Prime Minister Bill English tells Victor Li, deputy chairman of CK ...
VERNON SMALL/FAIRFAX NZ

"That's a very impressive view I have to say," Prime Minister Bill English tells Victor Li, deputy chairman of CK Hutchison Holdings.

Prime Minister Bill English likes the view from the 73rd floor of a high-rise owned by Asia's richest man.

The visit to the headquarters of CK Hutchison Holdings is the first stop on his two-day visit to Hong Kong, where he is delivering the message: New Zealand is open for business.

Vice chairman Victor Li, the son of Asia's richest man Li Ka-shing, starts with some Hong Kong context.

Looking down into the canyons amid the skyscrapers, he points out one particularly valuable spot.

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"It's $50,000 a square foot of air rights - not a square foot of land. Multiply that by 15 to get a square foot of land. Even by Hong Kong standards, that's amazing."

The plush penthouse meeting room of CK Hutchison Holdings, owners of Wellington's lines company.
VERNON SMALL/FAIRFAX NZ

The plush penthouse meeting room of CK Hutchison Holdings, owners of Wellington's lines company.

Hutchison is a major international investor in property and infrastructure, including in lines company Wellington Electricity Distribution Network, which it bought in 2008.

Based in Hong Kong, it has annual sales of about $93 billion and an asset base of $230b - not far shy of New Zealand's annual gross domestic product.

"For every 10 buildings here in the private sector, one is ours - one in nine roughly." Li tells English.

But Hong Kong and China represent only 15 per cent of the company's activities spread over 52 countries.

"I haven't written anything in Chinese internally for about 20 years ... We are based on a lot of flights and planes and video conference facilities."

"That's a very impressive view I have to say," English says, as they move to the formal part of the meeting in the plush penthouse.

Earlier, English told reporters he had come to Hong Kong to build relationships with major players he would meet.

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But it was also a good place to take the pulse of the global economy and to see what impact the international "noise" was having.

"When you've got the threats of North Korea, the domestic politics of the US, some of the tensions among the larger economies in Asia, the Brexit going on, you could get the impression no one's focused on the economy," he said.

"Coming to Hong Kong's a good way to get a sense of how the economy's going underneath all that and whether the political instability is having an impact on it."

And his message was: "We are open to trade, open to investment, open to migration."

The Government believed it could build the infrastructure needed to support growth, and he is meeting with "proven investors in New Zealand".

The country was open, but investment was subject to New Zealand's rules.

But he was focused on infrastructure because National believes New Zealand could be "a growing economy with a growing population". That was a "increasingly distinctive picture" in the political landscape.

He would not be pitching particular projects to investors here, but the Government's long term plan has been outlined.

Roads would be the biggest category. Most were funded by central and local government, but the country needed a few more tools.

Part of his job was to remind investors of the overseas investment legislation.

"I think offshore investors are sensitive to New Zealand public opinion. They like to be seen as good investors, and often they are."

For instance, Japan had a 60 to 70-year history of investment in NZ and its companies had proved to be high quality investors, including in challenging areas like wood processing.

"I think there's a hesitation mainly, actually, about the complexity of the rules, the hurdles they have to get over.

"We have one of the more restrictive sets of rules among developed countries so that anyone coming in likes to understand all those, and often we are explaining to them the reason for the rules is to make sure the investment's beneficial to New Zealand."

If companies and workers met the rules - including on labour standards and quality - and had the skills they were welcome.

But asked if new rules, including minimum pay rates for visa applications, would make it harder for Chinese investors to bring in their own workers, English said that was speculative.

He had not seen "any serious proposals for large project specific workforces turning up".

During the two day visit, English will also meet the Chief Executive of Hong Kong, Leung Chun-ying, and the CEO-elect, Carrie Lam.

English returns to New Zealand on Sunday.

 - Stuff

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