Fonterra silent on China govt report

ANDREA FOX
Last updated 12:50 15/11/2012

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Dairy giant Fonterra will neither confirm or deny a Wall Street Journal report that it is in talks with a Chinese government investment institution eyeing a stake in Fonterra's new sharemarket-listed shareholders fund.

The WSJ reported overnight that China Investment Corp, the fifth largest country fund in the world with around $482 billion in assets under management, was in discussions with the farmer-owned cooperative about potentially investing in the new fund, launched last month.

The report has alarmed Fonterra farmers who were promised continued 100 per cent ownership and control of their cooperative when they voted in share trading among farmers (TAF) under which the fund will be created.

Fonterra responded that the Fonterra Shareholders Fund institutional offer was being made to institutional investors in New Zealand, Australia and "certain other overseas jurisdictions in Asia and Europe".

In a written statement, Fonterra, New Zealand's biggest company, said its leaders and joint lead managers for the fund bookbuild had spoken with a large number of institutional investors. "These meetings are confidential."

The bookbuild involves inviting selected institutional investors and NZX firms to indicate the number of units in the fund they wish to apply for at a range of prices, Fonterra said.

The offer closes on November 21.

Fonterra's statement said until the bookbuild was complete, it was "impossible to know what any institution's ultimate intention might be".

CIC is an investment institution and a wholly state owned company of the People's Republic of China, headquartered in Beijing.

Federated Farmers said if true, the reports were "predictable" once the decision was made to go down the TAF path.

“It further underscores the need for Fonterra shareholders to approve constitutional protections at the agm around Trading Among Farmers,” says Willy Leferink, the federation's dairy chairman.

Canterbury dairy farmer, Leonie Guiney, a vocal opponent of TAF, said the WSJ report indicated Fonterra's 10,500 farmer-owners were "now scrambling to retain some vestige of control".

"I'm absolutely sick of the lip service being paid to 100 per cent farmer control and ownership.We need to ask some extremely hard questions of our leaders."

Guiney said there were now just three "handbrakes" that could be applied by farmers to keep control of their company.

One was to support a remit from dairy farmer and former Federated Farmers dairy chairman Lachlan McKenzie to be presented to Fonterra's December annual meeting, calling for a farmer director majority on the board to be enshrined in the company's constitution and for farmer directors only to elect the Fonterra chairman, who has to be a farmer.

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The second handbrake was for farmer-shareholders to ensure the passing of resolution two regarding constitutional changes under TAF which was held over from the June special shareholders meeting, which saw TAF voted in by a narrow farmer majority.

The third was a private members bill seeking a legislative ceiling on the size of the new Fonterra Shareholder Fund, in which non-farmers can buy NZX-listed units of shares.

Fonterra's farmer-shareholders narrowly voted in support of TAF in June, against a vocal campaign of farmer opposition.

Many farmers feared that inviting the public and institutions to buy NSX-listed, dividend returning units in Fonterra shares, farmers would lose control of their cooperative.

Fonterra controls 90 per cent of New Zealand's dairy industry and is the world's biggest dairy exporter. It was created by a huge industry merger in 2001 which swallowed an amalgam of decades of mergers of farmer-owned regional dairy companies and the former national exporter, the Dairy Board.

Coaxing TAF over the vote line this year, Fonterra directors argued that TAF was essential to provide permanent capital for the company, which currently trades farmer shares itself based on milk supplied.

Under TAF there will be a separate share trading pool for farmers. The units which will be available to non-farmer investors cannot be voted.

The initial size of the shareholder fund is expected to be around NZ$500 million with no single investor permitted to hold more than 15 per cent of the stock.

- Fairfax Media

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