Spend-up announced before cash comes in

Finance Minister Bill English is in a rush to spend the proceeds of the partial sale of state-owned assets - even before even a single share has been sold.

In his fourth Budget, Mr English announced the establishment of a Future Investment Fund into which the proceeds from the partial sale of Mighty River Power, Meridian Energy, Genesis and Solid Energy would be put.

The Government is also planning to reduce its stake in Air New Zealand to about 51%.

The sell-down is likely to raise between $5 billion and $7 billion, depending on market conditions.

Mighty River Power is due to be partially listed in the third quarter of this year.

In the Budget, Mr English allocated an initial $558.8 million from the sale proceeds.

That included the first $33.8 million of the $1 billion ring-fenced for modernising and transforming New Zealand schools. More of the money would be allocated in future Budgets, after a review of school property management.

A further $250 million goes towards the KiwiRail "turnaround plan", $88.1 million towards hospital redevelopment and $76.1 million for the creation of a new Advanced Technology Institute.

"Investing the share sale proceeds in this way will result in valuable assets that are owned by the Crown, as part of a growing asset pool, on behalf of all New Zealanders," Mr English said.

The SOE sale process provided greater transparency and discipline for the companies.

The Government expected 85% to 90% New Zealand ownership after the partial share floats, including the Government's commitment to retain a controlling stake of at least 51% in each company, he said.

The Government would rather build new schools and better hospitals without having to borrow more from overseas lenders, and still retain a majority shareholding in those companies.

"We expect to make a significantly larger contribution from the fund in Budget 2013, once the share offers are under way."

Deloitte energy and infrastructure leader Paul Callow was not particularly impressed with the announced allocation of money from the funds.

"Tagging the proceeds in this way doesn't really fool anyone.

Money is money and the fact that the Government has just sold a stake in an SOE simply means it has more to spend or needs to borrow less.

"The important thing about the fund is the opportunity it presents to do something different and send a strong message about the Government's economic priorities and what it plans to do to achieve them."

The Government's explanation of why it was undertaking the mixed ownership model had been handled poorly to date and the proof of the project would depend very much on what the Government did with the proceeds, Mr Callow said.

So far, it had announced it would set aside $400 million for investment in irrigation schemes, along with vague recent comments about building and modernising schools and unspecified major hospital redevelopments.

The lack of detail was a shame as the licence to innovate, which the fund could bring, had the potential to transform many areas of the country's economic infrastructure, he said.

Social housing could benefit enormously from a government-backed lease-to-buy model for tenants whom the private sector would not fund to help them buy a home.

"With a little bit of imagination between now and Budget 2013, the Government could use the initial proceeds of mixed ownership to set the scene for a whole new way of thinking about investment in economic infrastructure in New Zealand," Mr Callow said.

Rail and Maritime Transport Union general secretary Wayne Butson said the Government should not hide behind the sale of profitable assets and use privatisation as the solution to funding KiwiRail's long-term plan.

Selling one asset to pay for another made no economic sense.

"The Government needs to take an ambitious approach to the future of rail, and make high quality rail a key part of the national transport logistics supply chain," Mr Butson said.

The stakes
• Future Investment Fund established
• $558.8 million allocated before state-owned assets sold
• Clearer direction on use of money called for
• KiwiRail investment criticised

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